Dog Blog

Preventing Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Teaching your dog that it’s okay to be alone is one of the three most important things your dog needs to learn.*  Dogs are social creatures and they need to be taught gently how to tolerate being alone and/or separated from the human they have bonded with.  So be patient and plan for small increments of improvements over time.

If a dog already has moderate to extreme separation anxiety, it is best to consult a reputable dog behaviour professional. CAUTION: the dog training industry is unregulated and there are some very uninformed and ill-informed people posing as experts in dog behaviour.

Departures and Arrivals Can Trigger High Emotions. Make your departures and arrivals “No Big Deal.” Especially your arrivals. Yes, you are happy that you are home and you might really want to have cuddles and play with your dog. Just wait a bit until your dog is in a calmer state. You don’t want to add to their excitement because this causes them to anticipate your future arrivals or departures. Anticipation of an exciting (or scary) event is often more intense than the actual event. You know the feeling when you are about to rip off a sticky bandage? That’s the power of anticipation. Or that dread when you know something unpleasant is about to happen. Or that intense excitement when you cannot wait for the person to arrive at the surprise party.

Keep your emotions neutral and casual — as if you had merely stepped out to get something from the car for a minute. Try to limit your attention to your dog when you arrive — wait a few minutes for your dog to calm a bit before you give a quiet, calm greeting. Instead, when you arrive, do things that are non-exciting for your dog like set your items down on the counter, put your coat away, etc.. If you need to let your dog outside, do so with minimal attention. Keep things non-exciting and just “normal.”

Dogs pay attention to our emotional states and if we are calm and unexcited about coming home, then the dog will pick up on that and should eventually match that emotion. If you act like it’s a big deal (or worse, that you are upset by a mess), then your dog’s emotional state will be influenced by that.

Expert tip for Arrivals: Have a “greeting place” like a comfy chair or the dog’s bed where you have a quiet greeting with some low-intensity cuddles with your dog when you return. Over a few repetitions, your dog will begin to wait at the “greeting place” after you arrive home, and there will be less racing around and jumping up for attention because those unwanted behaviours are no longer reinforced with your attention.

*The three most important things a dog needs to learn are 1) the world is a safe and happy place; 2) it’s okay to be alone; and 3) where to potty and how to ask a human to be let out. These are best learned when the dog is young, and the longer these are delayed, the more difficult they are for a dog to learn. 

Tired of Dog Enrichment? Your Dog Might Be, Too.

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Dog Enrichment is a popular buzzword these days, especially for dog parents who are staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are books, websites, social media groups, podcasts, videos, all promoting ways to help fill a dog’s mental, emotional, and physical needs — even spreadsheets to track enrichment opportunities and where there may be gaps that can be filled. As with all things, dog enrichment efforts can be taken to the extreme, and dog parents may feel pressured to fill their dog’s days with enrichment in order to be a good pet parent. Sometimes a dog just needs a break from it all. And so do pet parents.

Let’s take a step back and assess things.

For dogs that spend a lot of time alone or in an environment devoid of stimulation and opportunities to perform natural behaviours, providing more enrichment is beneficial.  Enrichment can help reduce stress, improve health, and prevent unwanted problem behaviours. But when is it too much?

To begin with, dogs require a lot more sleep/rest each day than many people realize.  Individual dogs differ, of course, but some sources suggest 12 to 14 hours a day, and some suggest 17+ hours a day correlates with fewer stress-related behaviour problems. A dog’s health and behaviour will suffer if a dog’s day is constantly interrupted by activities or if the dog’s environment doesn’t allow the dog to nap (e.g. too much activity in the home, too much guarding of the window or yard as people and dogs pass by, too many sudden environmental changes such as construction noises).

As well as sufficient sleep, dogs benefit from unscheduled time. Structure and routine are very beneficial for dogs, absolutely. But free-time needs to be included in the dog’s schedule so the dog can learn how to settle on his/her own and entertain themselves.  Obviously, one must ensure the dog’s environment for free time is such that a dog can entertain themselves safely and appropriately. For example, for puppies, chewers, dogs with housetraining issues, or dogs that tend to get into mischief, barriers/expens can be used to contain the dog to an area with a variety of toys, a bed, water and food dishes, and a potty area for accidents.

Providing enrichment activities for your dog doesn’t have to be complicated, time-consuming, or expensive.

Free-time to sniff and explore on walks is also essential for a dog’s well-being and to help reduce behaviour problems. Dogs experience the world largely though their noses, and if they are rarely allowed to stop and sniff (safe) things on a walk, a walk can become a frustrating, unpleasant experience for them. Letting a dog sniff and explore on a walk — if not the entire walk, then at least a portion of it — can do wonders for lowering a dog’s stress levels. Using a longer flat leash (3 to 4 meters) can allow you to shorten the leash to 1 or 2 meters when needed, but let it out to 3 or 4 meters when it’s safe to do so; a longer leash can allow a dog to move more freely and naturally through their environment, and training for loose leash walking skills will allow the dog to walk nicely on any length of leash. There is recent scientific evidencethat dogs on longer leashes sniff more and that sniffing lowers a dog’s heart rate.

Let the dog choose the activities he/she enjoys is also important for a dog’s wellbeing. Sometimes people enrol dogs in activities without considering if the dogs are enjoying the activities or not. Sometimes the environments for the dog sports are too intense for the dog. Sometimes the human has become too competitive and has taken the fun out of it for the dog. Sometimes there are too many of the activities in a week and the dog has not been allowed to rest between activities. Free work for dogs (unstructured time where dogs freely engage with various items in a space) is a trend that is helping dog parents understand their dogs’ preferences for activities. I would argue that for dogs that are not stressed when walking on a leash, a relaxing sniff and stroll on a long leash in a natural environment provides a similar opportunity to learn about a dog’s preferences.

Mealtimes can provide opportunities for mental stimulation and the expression of natural behaviours. Rather than feeding the dog from a bowl, try a food dispensing toy (e.g. a kibble ball, a hollow rubber toy, or a snuffle mat) or feeding a meal by hiding bits of it around the house, scattering it in a room, or laying food trails in the yard.

And finally, Cooperative Care training is a perfect opportunity to provide enrichment for practical purposes. Teaching dogs to love the grooming table, sand their own nails, rest their chin in your lap, happily swallow a pill — all of these things can be taught in a fun way for you and your dog. These “tricks” become practical skills and allow you to turn these necessary activities into relationship building activities.

For more information about dog enrichment, training, and behaviour, contact Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA. 

Can E-collars Be Used for Positive Reinforcement Training?

Can an e-collar be used for positive reinforcement training?

It is possible but only under these conditions:

  1. the dog is conditioned to have a positive emotional response to the collar (including the sight of the collar and the wearing of the collar even if it’s not activated)
  2. the collar is never used as a “correction” (giving the dog a “stim” as a consequence to doing an undesirable behaviour or stopping the “stim” as a consequence of doing the desired behaviour)

Let’s unpack that.

Conditioning a dog to have a positive emotional response to the e-collar requires several components. Firstly, the collar must be set to deliver a sound, vibration, or extremely minimal level of “stim” so the dog does not experience any physical or emotional discomfort. The dog is the one who decides if the sound, vibration, or “stim” causes discomfort or anxiety. It doesn’t matter if the human doesn’t think the experience is uncomfortable or worrisome; what matters is the dog’s perspective. (Even the clicker in clicker training can be an aversive to a dog if they don’t like the sound.)

Determining if a dog is experiencing physical or emotional distress can be very difficult, and even very experienced trainers often miss the signs, even with their own dogs.*  The human MUST be extremely good at reading the very subtle changes in the dog’s body language (e.g. nose licks, yawning, look aways, tightness around the mouth, dilated pupils, slowing down of movement). Dogs have been known to hide their pain, and dogs can show pain or emotional distress in ways that humans misinterpret as “obedience” or “good manners.” For example, dogs that are stressed can shut down emotionally and even “freeze” (Fight/Freeze/Flight response), and dogs in pain can appear more quiet, calm, or still, and some may appear more alert. Some trainers even purposefully use aversive tools and techniques to “rev up” or “activate” their dogs, perhaps not realizing this might be due to discomfort and stress.

If the dog’s experience of the stimulus of the e-collar (the sound, vibration, or extremely mild “stim”) is not negative in any way, then pairing it with a reinforcer like food (or a conditioned reinforcer) can condition the dog to have a positive emotional response to it. The sound/vibration/extremely mild “stim” can then be used as a marker for a desired behaviour, and with correct timing of the human with the remote, will communicate to the dog that the behaviour “correct.”

BUT, if the e-collar’s sound/vibration/’stim” is later used at an intensity that causes the dog any physical or emotional discomfort, the dog’s positive emotional response will quickly degrade. Instead, the dog will develop a negative emotional response to the sound/vibration/”stim” (and possibly to the collar itself, as well as any other associations the dog may have connected to the experience, including the location, the trainer, the activity).

Cognitive Dissonance Can Make Us Blind

I just finished listening to a podcast where the hosts discuss how e-collars work. They clearly point out that the device causes enough discomfort to cause the dog to stop a behaviour (or to avoid doing a behaviour) because that’s how aversive tools work, but they insist that they are not causing their dogs physical pain when they use it. Their defence is that they don’t register it as painful when they give themselves a “stim,” and they don’t see any evidence in their dog’s behaviour to indicate it’s painful.  (Emotional distress is not acknowledged as a consideration.) Yet they spend a fair amount of time pointing out that one person’s experience of the “stim” of an e-collar can be very different from another person’s experience of the same level of intensity. They acknowledge that the anticipation that the device will cause pain: “An e-collar has the value you give it. If you go into it thinking that the e-collar is a pain tool, it’s gonna deliver you pain no matter what comes out of it. Even if it’s nothing.” Now read that substituting the word “dog” for the word “you.” They recognize from the human end that the anticipation of pain/discomfort can result in actually feeling it, but they do not acknowledge that this can happen from the dog’s viewpoint, as well.  (Note: the anticipation of pain/discomfort is also called “fear“.)

As studies on dogs advance, especially with advances in neuroimaging and functional MRIs, perhaps we’ll have more science-based information on how dogs experience emotional and physical “pressure” when aversive training methods and tools are used, rather than relying on the opinions of dog trainers who insist the dogs are not feeling any physical or emotional distress.

*I remember seeing a video a trainer posted online trying to demonstrate how gentle a prong collar was to a dog. (The video isn’t up anymore.) It was obvious to me the dog was showing signs of stress (head hanging low, appeasement behaviours). This same trainer attended a dog class with me — her dog was in a flat collar for the class — and I noticed her dog never really looked happy in the class. Except when the owner asked me to hold onto her dog’s leash while she left the area to use the washroom. That’s when the dog visibly relaxed. My heart broke for this dog and I wondered if the owner even realized how her aversive methods affected her dog, even when the dog was not wearing an aversive collar. I’m sure she loves her dog and would find it very distressing to know that her aversive methods could be causing her dog distress and ruining their bond and relationship. 

Reducing Dog Conflicts at Dog Parks

What can dog park users do immediately to help reduce the chances that their dogs are involved in a dog-dog conflict?

Here is a podcast and an article from the APDT Chronicle of the Dog Summer 2020 (see page 44) outlining some simple ways park users can change their own behaviours to drastically reduce the risks. 

Recently, a small dog died from wounds it received from a larger dog at my local dog park. I cannot comment on this particular situation, as the details are not entirely clear. My heart is breaking for the owners of this dog. I can’t even imagine how traumatizing this is.

Changing Human Behaviour

Problematic dog owner behaviour at dog parks is not rare; one only has to look at the posts on a dog park page on social media for a week to get a glimpse into the problem.  But how much can dog owner behaviour influence dog-dog conflicts at dog parks? Well, a lot, actually.

One of the biggest factors influencing dog-dog conflicts at dog parks is the behaviour of human park users, and the two most effective ways to change the behaviours of park users are Education and Accountability.  Many Cities rely on Bylaw enforcement to address the unwanted behaviours of dog owners, and there is a place for this: holding people accountable through heavy fines can be effective, but this requires a lot of resources (money) to enforce the Bylaws. And as anyone who studies the science of behaviour knows, punishment and coercion are not the most effective methods to changing future behaviours. It’s essential that Cities put efforts into helping to educate dog owners and give them some tools to help them change their behaviours.

Dog owners need to be educated in how to read dog body language — particularly canine stress signals — and how to use dog parks in ways that will mitigate the risks to all the dogs present. Here are three simple and effective ways to educate of dog park users:

  • posters at the park illustrating dog-body language to watch for (here are some good examples of dog park signs), Any municipality in Canada wanting the rights to use this artwork for dog parks (for no charge) can contact the Canadian Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
  • Dog Park Ambassadors (volunteers who use the parks frequently) that have been trained by the City to help educate park users about A) the rules and Bylaws for using the park safely; B) dog behaviour/communication as it relates to dog parks; and C) how to interact with people at the park to help keep the experience positive.
  • optional and free dog training lessons for dog park users taught by Certified Professional Dog Trainers hired by the City. (Calgary’s award winning Responsible Pet Ownership model used CPDT certified trainers to help avoid the problem of improperly trained or unprofessional dog trainers. The CCPDT is the leading certification program for the dog training industry.)

Education can help empower park users to use the dog parks in ways that help make them safe and positive for everyone, and adding “perks” can further motivate and reinforce dog owners for their “good” behaviours.

Changing behaviours and a “dog park culture” will take time and an effective approach.

Why E-collars are a Very Bad Idea for Dog Parks and Dog Daycares

If you are at the dog park and you see a dog wearing an e-collar, keep your dog away from that dog.

To be clear, e-collars are a bad idea in general, but especially for situations where there are groups of dogs. When the dog wearing the e-collar feels the zap, the dog is very likely to redirect its frustration/fear/panic/pain/rage towards the nearest dog (or person).

If your doggie daycare uses e-collars, find another doggie daycare, even if the daycare assures you that they will honour your request not to put one on your dog. Not many doggie daycares will be open and honest about their use of e-collars, so check the fine print of anything you sign and ask several staff members to be sure.

It has been established in the scientific community and the professional dog training industry that e-collars are not recommended because of the negative repercussions even if they are used “properly.” Many reputable professional organizations have Position Statements against the use of e-collars, such as the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.

But, despite the science and the opinions of these professional organizations, there are still trainers who insist they know how to use them without any of these proven negative outcomes. They insist they are right and the science and highly educated professionals are wrong. Why?

Part of the problem is that an e-collar can sometimes provide a quick fix by temporarily suppressing the unwanted behaviours. Suppressing the behaviours is not fixing the problem. It can make things worse including training a dog to aggress without warning. However, from the person’s perspective, the instant result causes the person to be more likely to use the collar again in the future. This can be a big problem because it teaches the person to use the collar sooner rather than putting in the effort to try to actually train the dog to do a different behaviour, or trying to find out the underlying reason for the unwanted behaviour in the first place. Basically, an e-collar makes the trainer a lazy trainer. Yep. I said it.

There is so much more that I could write to explain why e-collars are a bad idea. But why take my word for it. Take the word of the professionals, including the professional organizations linked above.

The Humane Society of the United States states: “The least humane and most controversial use of the shock collar is as a training device. The trainer can administer a shock to a dog at a distance through a remote control. There is a greater chance for abuse (delivery of shocks as punishment) or misuse (poor timing of shocks). Your dog also may associate the painful shock with people or other experiences, leading to fearful or aggressive behavior.

I will never use the Shock Collar Again!

NOTE: it DOES NOT MATTER if the zap does not feel painful to you. What matters is how the dog feels about it. If the zap causes the dog to stop doing a behaviour, then the zap is causing discomfort. Putting the e-collar on your arm or neck or any body part to test it to see if the zap hurts is not a reliable test. The recipient decides what is discomfort. Just like the recipient decides what is pleasant.

 

Dog Park Design

Changing Behaviour Through Environmental Design

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Understanding the behaviours and needs of the primary users of a space is essential to creating one that is accessible, usable, safe, and attractive.

Creating a dog park involves much more than putting a fence around a section of open space. It’s essential that architects, city planners, developers, etc. consult a professional educated in dog behaviour early in the design phase because the problems that plague dog parks can be dramatically reduced (even prevented) simply by altering its design. 

Common Dog Park Problems (That Can Be Addressed Through Design):

  • Dog Conflicts
  • Defecation
  • Dog Owner Behaviour
  • Damage to Landscape
  • Security/Safety
  • Problems for Nearby Residents

Many of these problems can be addressed in the design phase 

Dog Park Consulting Services

Heat Exhaustion/Stroke in Dogs

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photo credit Mel Elias

 

This is general information only gathered from various resources and is not intended as veterinary advice.  Please consult a veterinarian if you have concerns about the health of your dog. 

Dogs that are at higher risk for heat exhaustion and heatstroke include breeds with shorter snouts (e.g. Shih Tzus, Pugs, Boston Terriers, Boxers, Bulldogs) and those with weaker bodies like older dogs, young puppies, and ill dogs.

Dogs cool themselves by panting to maintain their normal body temperature (101 to 102.5 F ; 38 to 39 C). Dogs can sweat through their noses and pads but this doesn’t do much to cool them. Overheating can cause severe tissue damage in minutes, affecting important organs like the brain, kidneys, liver, and the digestive system.

Heatstroke occurs when the dog’s temperature reaches 109 F (42.8 C) or above.

Symptoms can include:

  • Heavy panting (often accompanied by a refusal to drink)
  • spoon-shaped tongue can be an early sign of dog overheating
  • Excessive thirst
  • Glazed eyes
  • Vomiting and bloody diarrhea
  • Bright or dark red tongue, gums
  • Staggering
  • Elevated body temperature (104ºF and up)
  • Weakness, collapse
  • Increased pulse and heartbeat
  • Seizures
  • Excessive drooling
  • Unconsciousness

What to do:

Move dog out of heat and to the shade or air conditioning. Keep offering water. Sometimes dogs are panting too heavily to want to pause for a drink, but keep it available for when the dog wants it.

If the dog can stand and is conscious,

  • give small drinks of water (too much too fast can cause vomiting)
  • Take temperature. If the dog is 104 F (40 C) or lower, continue to monitor temperature
  • contact vet for further instructions even if dog seems recovered

If the dog cannot stand, seems unresponsive, or if the dog is having seizures:

  • confirm the dog is breathing it has a heartbeat
  • stay with dog (don’t try to immobilize a dog having seizures, just supervise to keep the area around the dog clear to avoid injury to the dog and anyone nearby; time the seizure and observe details that your vet may ask you about)
  • notify vet that you are bringing in the dog
  • begin to cool the dog gradually with COOL water (NOT COLD water) by placing wet towels or gently pouring COOL (NOT COLD) water on belly area, back of head and the underside of neck. Do not pour water into dog’s mouth.
  • DO NOT PUT DOG IN A POOL OR TUB OF COLD WATER
  • Take dog’s temperature. If it is at 104 F (40 C) or lower, STOP THE COOLING PROCESS (to avoid risk of blood clotting or temperature dropping too low)
  • Take dog to vet ASAP even if the dog seems to be getting better

PREVENTING HEAT EXHAUSTION & HEATSTROKE:

  • Provide LOTS of fresh, clean water at all times.
  • On warm days, dogs outside should have access to shade.
  • There is mixed opinion on the effects of “summer haircuts” (not suitable for all dogs). It has been suggested that in order to protect the dog’s skin from the sun, the dog’s fur should be trimmed no shorter than an inch (a few centimetres).
  • Exercise dogs during the coolest parts of the day. Stay in the shade when possible.
  • 32 C or hotter, dog should be kept indoors.
  • Limit exercise or play sessions; keep them short; take lots of breaks to cool down.
  • The heat from the concrete or asphalt can overheat your dog (and burn paws).
  • Never put dog in a hot vehicle (parked or being driven). It’s better to leave the dog at home where it’s cool and there is fresh water to drink.
  • Cooling Vests for dogs may be an option. The Whole Dog Journal shares some feedback on these vests (halfway through the article).

Understanding Dog Body Language

Dogs use many signals to communicate and these are often used in combination. It would be unrealistic to ask people to become fluent in complex canine body language, but learning to recognize a dozen signals is a reasonable task and can make a world of difference, especially in situations where children are involved.

Illustrations of dog body language indicating stress.

Videos of dog body language:

Dog Body Language (by Fear Free Pets)

Understanding Dog Body Language Part 1 ;

Understanding Dog Body Language Part 2

Every dog is different and each will have signals they favour more than others, but listed below are twelve common signals dogs use to indicate stress (i.e. excitement, confusion, anxiety, fear). Some of these behaviors are deliberate signals to others, some are physical responses to stress, and some are used to self-calm. When you see any of these, take note that your dog is probably under stress and you may need to intervene on his/her behalf to prevent problems.

Closed mouth
Look away or turn away
Lip licking
Half-moon eye or whale-eye (white of the eye is showing)
Shaking off as if wet
Yawning when not sleepy
Breathing changes (holding breath or begining to pant when there is no temperature change or exertion)
Increased hair loss and/or exfoliation (dander)
Meticulous grooming or frequent checking of body part
Scratching
Excessive salivation (when no food is present)
Sniffing

What can people do to manage a situation when a dog is stressed? In many cases, the dog will require extra distance and time to adjust to whatever is causing the stress, sometimes needing to be removed from the situation entirely. If children are nearby, the dog should be moved immediately to a safe distance. Many people make the mistake of assuming that because a dog isn’t growling or using other obvious signals of distress the dog must be fine with a situation.

In her book Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families (2009) Colleen Pelar highlights this problem and suggests dog owners think of a traffic light analogy when reading their dogs.  In her experience, many dog owners describe their dogs as being “fine” with something yet what she sees is that the dogs are showing early warning signals.  She points out that there is a difference between enjoyment (“green light” signals) and tolerance (“yellow light” signals), and that a dog’s tolerance can quickly be exhausted and cause him to start using “red light” signals.  She cautions adults to intervene immediately upon seeing the dogs giving “yellow light” signals.

Many dogs have learned to stop using subtle calming signals and jump quickly to more extreme signals like lunging, growling, barking, and even biting.  In many cases dogs have learned to do this because the subtle signals aren’t working for them: the “scary thing” goes away only when they use the extreme signals – signals that read as aggression. Dogs don’t generally start off this way but become “growly” when the humans around them haven’t been picking up on the lower level signals of stress and dogs are put into difficult situations: the dog is pressured to continue to let the child lay on him; the dog is required to get closer to the other dog before he is ready to do so; the dog is forced to be held by a stranger.  Dogs eventually goes over their thresholds and this is when humans finally seem to pay attention and intervene.  The child is removed from the dog; the other dog gets farther away; the stranger stops holding the dog keeps her distance.

To complicate this problem, many people also make the mistake of scolding or punishing dogs for using warning signals like growling, lunging, and barking.  They address the symptoms rather than the cause. The problem with this approach is that the dogs learn to suppress their signals and people think the problem is solved, when in fact what they’ve created are dogs that bite without warning.  Sometimes it makes more sense to people if they consider a similar situation for a young child: if a child is scared of something, then scolding or punishing will only increase the child’s anxiety.  Instead of scolding or punishing a dog for growling, lunging, or barking, people should look for the causes of these behaviours.  The dog is giving information about his emotional state and this is where the training should focus; a positive reinforcement program of desensitization and counter-conditioning will help change the dog’s emotional responses to the “scary thing” and as a consequence, the growling, lunging, and barking will no longer be necessary.

When people learn to read their dogs better, their relationship with their dogs can only improve.  Dogs will learn to trust their people more, their reactivity will decrease, and as a result, people will want to spend more time with their dogs.

Owners of over-reactive dogs or dog owners who want to prevent their dogs from becoming over-reactive (e.g. adolescent dogs) can contact me if they are interested in taking a class.