Saturday, January 22, 2011

How to Prevent That Your Dog Gets Lost

Sparked by two lost dogs whose owners reached out, a few of my friends, realizing that there is very little, easy accessible information available, recently formed a Lost Dog Networking Group. It is an open group and you can find it at Unfortunately, the group is growing at an incredible pace, even spreading to other provinces, and I say unfortunately because the reason that it grows so fast is because so many dogs bolt or wander away, and don’t find their way back home. Their owners now have a wonderful resource they can approach, and that is great, but ideally dogs shouldn't be lost in the first place.
Below tips hopefully prevent that you find yourself needing help to reunite with your canine companion.
- Walk your dog in your neighborhood, daily, and take different routes. Your dog should be very familiar with his surroundings and, from any direction, know where his home is. Put “find home” on command and test your dog. Make going home when you’re heading back a tracking game and let him lead you, and, by the way, do the same if you frequently visit parks and trails. Instead of "finding home", have your dog find the car in the parking lot. If something were to scare him, chances are he'll "flee" to the car and wait for you.
- If you own a wanderer, introduce yourself and your dog to your neighbors. Bring them a bottle of wine and attach a card to it with your phone number and instructions what do to if they spot Spot. Our very amiable Newf Baywolf, who rarely missed an opportunity to go socializing, was gone on rare occasions, but never lost, because our neighbors knew and enjoyed him, and knew us, and either brought him home or called. Having a collar and tag on your dog is a given, but if your neighbors know that your dog is friendly, and that you are too, they'll likely be more accommodating and helpful.
- If your dog has testicles, be extra careful of open doors and yard gate latches. I don’t share the popular opinion that everything on four paws needs to be neutered, but the fact is that intact dogs tend to have itchy feet – and a nose for a ready-to-mate girl dog.
- Be also extra careful with a new dog. DO NOT let your newly adopted dog off the leash the next day. He doesn’t know you yet, and has not formed a grateful bond to you in 24 hours just because you rescued him and gave him one bowl of kibble. From your dog’s point of view, you might be nothing more than just another transitory pit-stop, and he has no reason to stay put or listen to you. Social belonging isn’t automatic – it comes with time. You also know nothing about the dog. You don’t know what drives him and scares him; what he does when an environmental stimulus motivates him, or which way and how far he’ll run when something spooks him. Invest in a 30-50 tracking leash that allows you to find out more about your new pooch, and practice a really reliable recall, and then give him free reign.
- Don’t take your dog off the leash if she is skittish and timid – no, not even at the dog park. When we lived in Calgary, within a span of a few weeks, three dogs were lost in a popular park we regularly visited. One was scared by a train whistle and ran away, and two were bullied by a couple of out-of-control dogs. Two dogs were eventually found, one was never to be heard of again. All three dogs were described by their owners as timid and skittish by nature, and one was just adopted from an animal shelter a few days prior.
- Train a solid down position stay away from every entrance door, including the yard gate, and practice with the doors opening and staying open. Your dog should not exit the house, or leave his property, without a specific command, and only with his person. Condition that by practicing whenever you have a minute or two, at different times of the day, and always combine a specific word with your exiting the entrance points together. It’s doable. Really, it is. It just takes time and patience. If you are really ambitious, the door opening could become your dog’s cue to run to the toy box, or his crate, instead of outside.
- When you are out, your dog should be in. In the house, or at least in a secure and comfortable dog run, with a warm shelter to retreat to, and toys, and water. Treat a dog run as an outside home, used only when you are not home, and never as a place that isolates, segregates your dog. When you are home, your dog should be with you. I don’t care how many acres you own, your dog should never be roaming unsupervised, cause then roaming unsupervised becomes a habit. Trail your home range together, check the boundaries together, and you establish a solid social bond that increases the chance that your dog wants to stay on home turf voluntarily.
- Build a real fence, if you must, not an invisible one. I met numerous dogs who were so motivated by an environmental stimulus that they took the shock, and escaped the shock collar fence - and got into trouble, or lost. A dog trainer friend and rescuer wrote a fabulous blog post on shock collar confinement you can read at Dogs also escape when the battery goes dead and the warning beep doesn’t happen, and when the owner forgets to put the shock collar on the dog first thing in the morning. If you rely on a tool to keep your dog put, you’re dog will go when you don’t have the tool. Plus, in my opinion and based on my experiences, shocking a dog changes who he is, and the relationship with you, and by extension the place where he lives.
- You, your home, and property should always be perceived as a safe place; a refuge where never anything bad happens. Never. No shocking. No harsh training. No punishments. Escape is extreme avoidance, and I periodically meet dogs who feel, at least, ambiguous about their home base, and the people who live there. If you are, in your dog’s mind, a 100% predictably safe place to seek shelter with, he is more likely to stay put, or run to you, not away from you, when frightened.

Said all that, accidents happen. Even with all precautions taken, even with the nicest owners, and the best home, a dog might spook and bolt, or is enticed by a scent, sight or sound he'll curiously investigate, and then becomes disoriented and gets lost. In that case, it is critical that you get a sighting. You gotta know where your dog is before you have a chance to reunite with him. How to go about it is exactly the kind of information the Lost Dog Network can help you with, and is also available at
When you have a sighting, you need to be very careful that you don’t frighten your dog into bolting again, cause then you have to start from scratch. You might assume that your dog is as happy to see you as you are to see him, but that is not necessarily so. He could be confused, scared, panicked, suspicious, hurt or sore, and in that frame of mind is very sensitive to the slightest trigger, including you. He will continue to run away if someone, even you, is encroaching into his flight zone. The threshold how far you can safely approach is easy to determine. If your dog has you on his radar, but doesn’t increase the distance, you are good. Don’t try to get closer, but entice your dog to come to you. Say familiar words that elicit a positive emotion. Familiarity alone doesn't cut it; what you say has to feel good to your dog. Stuff like: “Wanna go for a car ride?” or “Wanna play with… (fill in the name if he has a favorite dog friend)”, are examples. Speak with your calm and casual voice, not a panicked one. Breath normally and keep your body loose, and don’t fixate on your dog or he’ll feel targeted and might, yup, run.
I know that is tough to do for an emotionally devastated owner, who, maybe after days of searching, finally sees his dog. But it is said that humans have a cerebral cortex that can overrule emotions, and convincing a confused dog to trust is a good time to apply that skill. Remember, one wrong step can cause him to bolt again, and then you have once more no idea where he is.
Other than familiar words and gestures, have your dog's favorite toy or blanket with you to trigger memory. And leave food, small pieces of delectable people food, and your smell, stinky socks, and retreat, so increase the distance to give your dog enough space to safely sniff and eat. Repeat leaving and retreating as often as you need to, and slowly, patiently, you'll trigger his curiosity and reestablish trust.
Any of the above can trigger your dog’s memory, and make him feel secure with you again, and then he’ll come to you, and you are reunited – a happy-end story everyone wants to see, and keeps the people with the Lost Dog Network motivated and in the game.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How a Dog is Raised and the Probability of Future Behavioral Problems

In “Early experience and the development of behavior” James Serpell and J.A. Jagoe show the relationship between problem behaviors in dogs and where they were raised.

Aggression was significantly more prevalent in dogs bought at a pet store, followed by:
Found – as a stray and kept.
Breeder – as in large breeder with pups raised in a kennel environment.
Lowest in dogs bred in a home environment, including by a friend and family member.

Regarding social fears, the highest rate was again in dogs acquired from a pet store, followed by:
Found and large kennel Breeder ranked about the same
Lowest again when bred in a home environment.

The authors didn’t elaborate on aggression and social fears, so we don’t know if the dogs threatened, bit, resource guarded or what. And of course, social fears can also be the root of aggressive displays, and the fact that they separated the two leads me to believe that it was timidness and nervousness they were referring to.

Can’t say that I am surprised by these findings. No pet should ever be purchased in a pet store, and I have a peeve with large kennel breeders, who have 2,3,4 or more litters going at the same time, year around. Even if the dogs and puppies live in a house, and not in a barn or outside kennels, the environment is stressful, and there isn't enough time in a day to give each pup the care she needs to turn into a well-rounded adult.
Shelter dogs having a higher rate of social fears is what I experience as well. I work(ed) with many rescue dogs, and rarely me(e)t one who is not on some level anxious or insecure. But don’t stop adopting, cause in almost all cases that can be fixed, and you end up with a wonderful companion.
The second highest aggression rate in found dogs could be explained with that they might have been ditched in the first place because they were aggressive.
That the lowest occurrences for both aggression and social fears were seen in dogs that were lovingly bred in someone’s home is food for thought, cause it, of course, includes people condescendingly trashed by many as back yard breeders.
I've never seen anything wrong with someone who has a really nice dog or two and wants to pass on the great genes, often keeping a pup for himself and finding homes for the others in their friend and relative circle, or even, arrgh, advertising it on-line. And I am so against on-line dog shopping. I really am. But there are exceptions and sometimes a lovingly raised pup can be found there. Doing the proper research are the key words here.
If I’d be shopping for a pup, I would not rule these people out. I would also not rule out breeders who have a more commercial business going, but would most certainly shop locally so I can see with my own eyes how the puppies are raised, and how their parents live.
But my heart is really with dogs looking for a second chance. I am a sucker for dogs who have social fears, cause there’s nothing more rewarding than when they overcome them and trust again.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Animal Control, Humane Societies and the No-Kill Movement

In another time, at another place, I was a little deeper involved in shelter politics than I am now. Time is one reason, but ego-driven managers, useless boards, nonsensical actions, and rules and regulations that don’t always prioritize animal welfare, distracted me from doing what I do best – working with dogs. So here and now, I give advice or assess a dog when asked, but other than that live happily in my tralalala world, distanced from the internal dramas and conflicts of the rescue circuit.
Not being involved doesn’t mean that I don’t care. I often ponder about the plight of animals nobody wants. A little while ago I read a couple of blog posts that caught my interest, plus I had private conversations about local dog politics, and as a result felt compelled to voice my opinions on homeless dogs and the institutions that deal with them, and what I think should and could happen, but not necessarily does happen, at least not everywhere.

I’d like to see Animal Control and Humane Societies under provincial, not municipal jurisdiction. That would streamline bylaws, resources and training, assessment and adoption guidelines, and offer consistency for people - and dogs if they have to be moved from one shelter to another.
Rules and regulations must ensure public safety, but the focus should be the animal. Child Social Services is about kids, health care about sick people, and animal stuff about animals. Lawmakers typically consult with experts before making decisions, and the same should be the case regarding dogs. Dog bylaws must be based on facts about dogs, and not public paranoia fueled by a media that sensationalizes isolated incidents.

A few years ago in Calgary, during a radio interview, someone and it might have been Bill Bruce but I am not sure, explained the different roles Animal Control and a humane society have in the community. AC protects people from animals and the HS animals from people. I quite liked that. It is clear, and a simple policy to implement. Unambiguity means that no pooch falls through the cracks. AC’s duty, then, would be to seize reported aggressive dogs that are owned, but also, in my opinion, gather up roaming strays for safekeeping and behavior-assessing. I like to see dogs kept for 10 days unless an escapee is claimed, at which point AC should check if the owner is capable of caring for his pooch properly. 72 hours is too short. One often doesn’t get an accurate personality evaluation in the first 72 hours cause the dog is too afraid, confused, stressed, hungry, or sore. Plus, a stray’s person might be out of town, unaware that his dog is missing and therefore unable to retrieve him within 3 days.
Humane societies would cover all dogs that can’t stay in their present homes because they are either mistreated, or unwanted. I believe that there should be at least one open admission shelter within a certain radius and populous; a place where no animal is denied entrance. Yes, that does enable callous people to dump the dog they messed up. Yes, it does provide an easy copout for immature and irresponsible humans whose lifelong companion doesn’t fit their lifestyle any longer. But the sad truth is that someone who wants to get rid of his dog, will. If the pooch can’t be surrendered, he might be ditched in a rural area, chained, shot or beaten, or passed on to a na├»ve softy who has the best intentions, but lacks awareness that a neglected or mistreated dog can come with emotional baggage, expressed in problem behaviors. The dogs, almost all of them, can get better and some people are committed to their new canine, and financially able to afford professional help, but others continue the cycle and get rid of the dog.
Suffering is a constant in many dogs’ lives, happens in many places, and often in people’s homes. To ease suffering, open admission is unavoidable.

AC and HU have different, but equally important roles in a civilized society, and both entities should receive public funding. No third parties. No tenders. Methinks it is easier to work together if there isn’t a juicy contract to vie for.
I get it: Non-profit and transparent government funded institutions that are managed by animal experts that deeply care is wishful thinking. Coming up with more money, when there are so many demands already, is a doozy for our politicians. No question, caring for the sick and poor, keeping roads and other infrastructure in decent shape, and educating our youngsters are paramount responsibilities. There is other important stuff, like building impressive structures and arenas, subsidizing for profit companies, and financing decades-long studies to scientifically prove common-sense knowledge.
And let’s not forget that the business of governing is not cheap. Our elected politicians need to be paid, and their expenses need to be paid, too, and their retirement has to be taken care of. They also need money to hire consultants that tell them how to govern better, pay committees of consultants for the same reason, travel to fancy places to see how others govern, travel to fancy places to conference how to govern better together, and travel to fancy places to make plans to meet somewhere else to discuss how to govern better. I am not kidding myself that compassionate animal welfare is anywhere remotely on the agenda of governments any time soon. But it should be. Cause people dedicated to improve the lives of animals in need should be able to focus on exactly that, and not be consumed with fundraising enough dough to stay afloat for another month.

With humane societies funded, the various rescue groups orbiting the big shelters would likely see more donations coming their way, and everyone could work TOGETHER – tralalalala.
Specialized rescue organizations are the best fit for specific dogs, and more money for them means that they are in a better position to help AC and HU when such a dog is seized, found or surrendered. Ideally, every pure bred dog should go to pure breed rescue, and I like breeders involved in that - and many good ones are.
But even without government funding, I wish people with a common goal, even if their personalities clash, could get over their antagonistic relationships and cooperate. Dogs don’t care who did what to whom 5 years ago. All they want is food, water, shelter and to feel safe, and they rely on humans to supply those things.

Enough wishful thinking, let’s talk about the reality I see. Presently, only a small percentage of all monies donated goes to animals, and many organizations, including humane societies, compete for the little that’s available, and that makes good PR a critical aspect. The PR buzz word for the last several years is No-Kill.
No-Kill shelters reject euthanasia unless an animal is too sick, or too aggressive to be adopted; aim, as far as I know, for a below 10% euthanasia rate. It is popular with the public, where donations come from, cause people hate when cute furry things die an untimely death; pity the down-trodden, sad-eyed dog and want for him to have chance in life – with someone else.
Okay, now is a good time to state unequivocally that I believe that no animal that can be treated and rehabilitated should be killed. Not one. My wish is for every dog (and cat, ferret, iguana, bird….) to feel safe and cared for, in a home or sanctuary. Is any euthanasia rate acceptable? No. Is the No-Kill movement the solution? I don’t think so.
As long as we have more animals produced than people wanting one, and as long as we don't have laws with teeth that ensure that dogs don't develop problems the average person can't live with, we have more needing help than available spots. And whenever that happens, shelters are between a rock and a hard place.
Dog: “My person doesn’t want me anymore. He frightens me when he gets angry with me. Can you help?”
Shelter staff: “No, sorry buddy. We would only have to euthanize you, and that would mess up our No-Kill statistics, and that would affect our donations.”

If I'd have a junk of money to get rid of, euthanasia statistics is the last thing I am interested in.
What matters most to me is that each and every animal that enters an organization’s door is treated with the utmost compassion, and consideration to what is in that dog’s best interest given the circumstances.
If the shelter claims No-Kill status, I wanna know how many dogs they turned away to, possibly, die elsewhere?
Do they have hard to adopt dogs wasting in kennels for months?
What are their adoption criteria? Are new owners carefully selected, or does quantity overrule quality?
Is anybody checking if the pooch is still with the adopter after a few months? A couple of years? How is he kept? What’s his quality of life? Remember, No-Kill doesn’t mean No-Suffering. Every adopted dog should get at least one follow-up check, and if he can't be traced, should be added as “euthanized” to the statistics.
Of course, quantity doesn't exclude quality. There are fabulous shelters that do both. They typically have progressive programs, public-accommodating opening hours and adoption guidelines, and knowledgeable staff that matches the dog with a compatible human.
If a shelter has a higher euthanasia rate I wanna know why.
Were dogs killed because they failed a small aspect of an unrealistic, only minutes long, temperament test that sets dogs up to fail?
Were they euthanized because the shelter doesn't have a training program and follow-up care for dogs with issues?
Are managers and staff incompetent, careless and rude, thereby driving the public away and creating bad PR?
Or do they have a large intake of dogs that are in bad shape?
Are they located in an area that provides very little resources?
How are the animals euthanized? Sedated and overdosed while someone caresses and talks to them? Or cruelly mass-gassed?

There are other aspects that determine if I support someone, or not.
A biggy for me is if animals are sold to a research facility. In my books, every dog has the same value. I don’t care if he is a pedigreed, once pampered surrender, or a flea-ridden mongrel trapped at one of Canada’s many rural garbage dumps. Every dog feels fear and pain, confusion, anxiety and panic, and the thought and knowledge that some are deliberately sentenced, for life, to experience any or all of the above, by the very same people who are suppose to speak on their behalf, is heartbreaking.
I also want to know where the dogs are spayed and castrated. The shelter I used to volunteer for sent dogs to a teaching college, and some came back with pretty severe behavioral, and occasionally physical, issues they didn’t have before. The dogs couldn’t tell us in words what had happened there, but their behavior indicated that it was traumatic. Based on that, the shelter stopped to supply the college with animals, even though it meant an additional financial burden. That’s compassion.
And I want to know, if the shelter has a training program, who works with the dogs. Shelters rely heavily on unpaid helpers, and there is nothing wrong with delegating daily dog training duties to volunteers. It can be a win-win-win if dogs receive mental and physical stimulation and learn manners that make them more adoptable, the new owners get a pooch who knows foundation commands they can build on, and people interested in dogs are given ample opportunities to learn more about their behavior.
It is a lose-lose-win if intimidation, force and pain increase fear and anxiety in the, due to past and present living environments, already stressed and confused dog. Dogs and future owners lose; the ones who win are upcoming shock collar trainers who get to practice their zapping skills, beginner handlers who become more proficient in pinning and punishing, and seasoned trainers who often drum up business through pro bono shelter work.
So, training yes, but the method has to be in place. Training guidelines have to be set by the shelter, and all volunteers must observe them.

In an ideal world every dog would have a place to live that is safe, and where his species and breed specific, and individual, needs are met. That place could very well be a sanctuary, where people care for dogs' physical needs, and compatible dog buddies provide social interactions. But it can’t be a cage or a solitary life on a chain, dog run or fenced yard.
We don’t live in an ideal world. Animal welfare organizations often don’t have enough resources cause governments on all levels don’t care, and wealthy philanthropists like to support causes that generate more recognition and media applause.
There aren’t enough sanctuaries for dogs that don't fit into society, and if the right person for an unwanted one isn't available, euthanasia becomes the most humane option. To prevent that dogs live the miserable life of permanent restraint, isolation or harsh treatment, shelters kill him. And if that is their motivation, they shouldn’t be judged.
I wish that nobody would get his pup from a pet store, pet broker or large-scale breeder, but I have nothing against people who purchase a blue-blooded pooch from a conscientious one. Really, I don’t. To the contrary, it benefits all parties when the person has a clear understanding what he desires in a dog, and where his personal limitations are. Owning an expensive pure-bred is okay, but then judging a shelter’s euthanasia rate, and withholding donations because it doesn’t match his perfect world, is not.

A life free of fear, stress and pain means more to a dog than the length of it. I am certain of that. Because it is important for them, it is priority for me. If you feel the same, ask a whole lot of questions before you hand over your hard-earned dollars. Look for an organization that treats each animal kindly - maybe for the first time, on the last day of his life.