A Little Sugar

A reader asks: We kiss our little dog all the time. She seems to understand it is something special. But is that really true?

While I spend much of my life trying to understand how dogs think and feel, I can never really know what any individual dog (or human) — or dogdom in general — thinks, feels, or understands. But I have certainly given this some thought, as have many dog people. Here’s my take.

The relationship with her humans is the most important thing in your dog’s life. Even dogs who live among doggy siblings treasure their bonds with their humans. So yes, any individual contact is special to her.

But is there something about a kiss that is special to a dog? We often interpret a dog’s licks as kisses from them to us. We might be wrong about that, or, as with many vocalizations that dogs use with their humans, a kiss or lick might be a dog’s attempt to mimic something that is a big part of how humans interact and communicate. Again, hard to be sure.

Dogs lick themselves or each other as a way to soothe or relieve tension or anxiety. They might lick us to ask us to stop doing something (ever tried to examine a dog’s hurt paw only to have him lick your hand incessantly the entire time?). Mother dogs lick their pups to clean them and, in very young puppies, to stimulate toileting. Puppies might nuzzle and lick their mom’s muzzle to ask for food. But all of these types of licking look and feel very different from the nuzzling, gentle licks that seem to indicate affection.

Cali cuddleSo how do dogs understand our kisses and hugs? Many dogs dislike hugs or even see them as threatening. Most do learn to tolerate them, but it’s never a good idea to hug or kiss a dog you do not know well.

Your own dog has probably learned that kissing, hugging, and other types of contact that might not come naturally to dogs are important parts of your relationship with her. She is much more likely to accept it from you than from a stranger, even if it’s not her favorite thing. You can watch your dog’s reaction to see whether she leans away, puts her ears back, or tenses up when you touch or pet her in certain ways; if so, try something else. If she likes what you are doing — leans in, paws you to get you to continue if you stop — you can do more of it (bring on the belly rubs!). If kissing happens when you are snuggling with your dog and she’s staying put or even snuggling closer (asking for more?) I’d guess that she is enjoying the contact and closeness — and that she does know it is one of the ways you show her that you love her.


Why Is My Dog’s Eye Red?

A reader asks: My dog’s eye is red and bloodshot. I know that she has seasonal allergies; is that all it is? How do I know whether it is something serious?

While itchy, red, and irritated eyes can definitely be a symptom of seasonal allergies in our dogs (as well as in ourselves!), the key that something more is going on is that only one eye is affected. This is a good reason to get it checked out by a vet.

Eyes are delicate — and very important — so don’t take chances here. It can be allergies, a cold, or a minor irritation, but it could be something much more serious.

In this case, the dog, Hannah, had scratched her cornea badly. The vet put in some drops that showed the scratch in vivid green. Hannah went home with eye drops. She was an amazingly cooperative patient (I’ve had otherwise sweet-tempered, you-can-do-anything-to-them dogs threaten to rip my arm off if I came near them with that eyedropper again). Medication seemed to help at first, but ultimately, Hannah needed surgery, but she’s recovering. It’s a good thing she’s nice about the eye drops, though, because she needs several types of drops and ointments during her long, uncomfortable recovery.

A scratched cornea is not the only thing that can cause a single red eye. The most common cause is an irritant — a piece of dirt, dust, or plant matter or a spray, such as a skunk’s spray or a household aerosol. But bleeding in the eye or clear discomfort (the dog is pawing at her eyes) can signal a serious health problem like glaucoma or a tumor. These are rare, but the only way to be sure is to get the eye examined.

Good Mom, Bad Mom?

got cookies_sae hokoyamaA reader writes: My spouse, the “good” parent, gives our dog lots of treats. Now the dog has become a tyrant, especially when I’m trying to make dinner. Other than saying NO when she has maxed out her quota and then having to deal with nagging, or else yelling at this sensitive dog and becoming even more of the “bad” parent, what might you suggest?

This is a tough one, as is any instance where spouses’ parenting styles clash.

A couple of hints in your question suggest an area where I think you can make changes, though. One is your characterization of yourself as the “bad” mom, simply because you are a tiny bit more strict. And what, exactly, is her “quota”? Together, these tell me that you and your spouse, like many dog parents, equate giving treats with giving (or, perhaps, getting) love. And a nice mom (or dad) gives lots of treats while a mean mom stints on the cookies. That’s simply not true, regardless of what the dog says or how sadly she looks at you.

One place to start might be to not give any treats without a reason. That’s not as mean or as hard as it sounds. And even if you can’t get your spouse on board, you can convince the dog that making sad puppy eyes at you will not get her anywhere (and neither will “nagging,” whatever form it takes).

Come up with your own criteria. I ask that my dogs do something, bring me something, or submit to something they dislike in order to earn treats. This translates to cookies for bringing me the paper or my shoes or for picking up their bowls after eating; treats for coming in, sitting nicely, and stopping their insane barking when the neighbors walk by with their dog; and high-value treats for allowing me to do their nails and other hated grooming chores.

Some people set the bar lower, giving the dog a treat each time she comes in from going out to pee, for example. While I see no reason to do that, it does, at least, set a criterion. You do X, you get a cookie. That sets up a different expectation than: I am (or I am cute); therefore I deserve a cookie.

If all that seems too complicated, any time she bugs you for a treat, ask her to do something she already knows: sit and shake hands; roll over; high five. She will still be exchanging something for the treat, not just walking by and expecting rewards simply for existing.

Of course, she is not going to accept this new regimen without protest. You’ll need to hold firm for a few days or a week or so, ignoring her nagging, and she will ultimately resign herself to having to earn or pay for her rewards, just like the rest of us. She might still get freebies from your spouse — you probably can’t change that. But I seriously doubt that your dog measures her love for each of you by the number of free treats you hand out. A lot more goes into building a relationship than that!

What are the BEST dog toys?

Jana, with her favorite treat toys
Jana, with her favorite treat toys

A friend recently asked me for advice on addressing some behavior issues with a young golden retriever. Since I have extensive experience with young golden retrievers, I quickly deduced that the main issue was that the golden’s energy level far surpassed that of her human. She needed a way to burn off some of that energy, something that would provide mental stimulation as well. Bored, smart dogs with energy to burn can be a dangerous combination!

I suggested several chew toys and treat toys, both of which will engage the attention of food-motivated dogs (goldens define food-motivated) and pose a mental challenge. In other words, burn off physical and mental energy, keep the dog busy, and make everyone’s life a little more peaceful. Sounds great, right?

These toys work for any dog who is willing to put some effort into obtaining a yummy reward. All have been thoroughly vetted by an expert panel consisting of:

  • Jana, a 10-year-old golden who will work for hours for the tiniest morsel of food
  • Cali, an 11-month-old golden who has about a 20-second attention span, but who enjoys most of these toys and will actually play with some of them for as long as half an hour (!!)
  • Albee, a 2-year-old Labrador who prefers not to have to work for her food after spending a long day at the office, but who also enthusiastically approved several of these toys

Chew Toys

Cali's favorite: the jack
Cali’s favorite: the Jack

Our newest favorites are all in the “Busy Buddy” family — The Bristle Bone, which is used with rawhide or cornstarch rings, is beloved by all three expert testers. Albee has managed to de-bristle the bristle rings, though, which makes it really easy to get the rawhide and also diminishes the teeth cleaning action of the toy. The Jack toy is Cali’s favorite, but Jana has managed to take it apart several times, making it far too easy to slip off the rawhide ring and devour it. The Ultra Stratos is a new addition to this toy collection and seemed promising, but again, Jana managed to defeat it fairly quickly. Now that we have several of these Busy Buddy toys, I make up new configurations of rings, bristles and rawhide, and I am going to get smaller rings to make it even harder for top expert Jana to get to the rings. Still, she will spend a good hour chewing on one of these toys if I manage to screw it together tightly enough. In my book, that is a huge success.

I can’t write about chew toys without mentioning old standbys: Rawhide, bones, Nylabones, and antlers.

All members of the expert panel love antlers, but I stopped getting them because we got a soft one once; Jana managed to eat a couple inches of it before I noticed, and she got really sick. In general, though, they are safe, long-lasting chews. If you get them, purchase from a U.S.-company that uses wild-shed antlers. Antlers don’t splinter like bones, and they are all natural.

Bones can be OK if they are fresh, boiled just a couple min to kill germs. When they’ve been around a while, they get brittle, though, and they can splinter or crack. That is how Jana cracked a molar recently, a very expensive lesson! We sometimes get the ones with some gristle still on, give them to the dogs outside (separated so they don’t kill each other) and throw them out when the bone part starts to look dry.

Cali has recently discovered Nylabones, and she’s a big fan. Jana and Albee will occasionally get into a chewing frenzy as well. These last a long time and are safe chew toys.

I generally avoid rawhide, since dogs can bite off large enough chunks that they can choke, and since most rawhide is treated with really toxic chemicals. There are some U.S. made brands that claim to be organic, but I still stay away from rawhide. There are so many preferable toys to choose from.

Treat Toys

These are great for mental stimulation as well as fun. You can feed the dog part of each meal in one or more of these, which will burn some mental energy.

IMG_2965Our experts give 4 paws up to:

  • The classic Kong, stuffed with … just about anything. Some favorites are kibble mixed w/peanut butter or yogurt and frozen; kibble softened in chicken broth (or warm water) and frozen; plain yogurt (also frozen)  — this one is messy and best enjoyed outside.  There are literally hundreds of Kong “recipes” if you Google “Kong stuffing.”
  • Squirrel Dude is still the reigning champion at our house. Jana loves him and cannot get all the food out. (The other dogs are less willing to work that hard, but he’s very popular will all testers.)
  • Busy Buddy Twist n’ Treat — good with peanut butter and kibble. Plain kibble falls out too easily.
  • Kong Genius toys are challenging — Cali hasn’t mastered them yet! Jana loves them. Albee doesn’t want to work that hard. They link together to make it even harder to get the food out.
  • Other favorites, beloved by Albee in particular, are the Omega Paw Tricky Treat Ball and the TreatStik. These both hold kibble and the dog bats the toy around to make the kibble fall out.
  • And of course, Jana’s longtime favorite, the Orbee ball with a large biscuit stuffed inside. She has to break the biscuit into small enough pieces that they will fall out of the small hole. She’s gotten so good at this, though, that unless the biscuit is very hard to break, she’s done in a few minutes.

General advice — Avoid toys that use a specially designed treat. The refill treats are usually overpriced. There are many, many toys that can be filled with the dog’s kibble, which means you can make the dog work for part of each meal. The only exception I’ve made is the Busy Buddy toys, because they are among the few toys that keep Jana busy for hours (really!) and the rings last a while. I also advise avoiding the ones that are a harder plastic (like the Buster Cube); they are very noisy on the floor as the dog bangs them around to get the food out.

This stuff is all available on Dog.com and Amazon. Local St. Petersburgers can get them at Pet Food Warehouse, a wonderful, locally owned pet store. If you get on their email list, you get a monthly newsletter with a $5 coupon!

Service Dog Appreciation Week!

service dog week

As National Service Dog Appreciation Week draws to a close, I want to draw your attention to an article I co-authored with Deni Elliott. It is a discussion of the current and growing problem of fake service dogs and “inappropriate” service dogs, that is, dogs who may be trained to assist a person with a disability but who are not trained for public access and/or have a temperament that makes them unsafe in public spaces. Unfortunately, Deni and other service dog partners are encountering more and more dog-reactive dogs, which makes it challenging and unsafe for their dogs to work.

Our proposal, which might be controversial, suggests a solution. We hope this article will be part of a larger debate in the service dog community as well as among policy makers and will ultimately help find a solution. You may download the article from Deni’s website or from the portfolio page of this website.

Good Owners Make Good Dog Parks

Happy dogs at play (photo by Sae Hokoyama)

In Take Me Out to the Dog Park, I described some features that contribute to a successful — fun, safe — dog park. But a perfectly designed and maintained park can be a nightmare if the dogs and humans who hang out there create a bad dog park culture. How can you tell?

Before letting your dog off leash in an unfamiliar dog park, check it out. If you can, observe the park during busy after-work or weekend hours. If not, observe for a few minutes before letting your darling out of the car.

Inattentive dog owners are a key contributor to unsafe and unpleasant dog park experiences. If the people are all clustered around the edge, chatting in small groups, or sitting on benches sipping coffee and ignoring the dogs, walk away. Some dog parks have a “let dogs be dogs” culture that encourages bullying. In Sue Sternberg’s excellent APDT Webinar[1], she showed video footage from a small urban dog park where dogs bullied and ganged up on other dogs while the oblivious humans sat on the sidelines.

You are your dog’s advocate and protector — if your dog is being bullied, get him out of there! You are also the responsible grown-up, frightening as that may be. If your dog is being a bully, get him out of there! Not all dog play is appropriate, and dog owners need to be aware of what’s happening so they can stop unsafe play.

What does dog bullying look like? If a dog keeps bugging another dog to play, even though the other dog has looked away, walked away, or barked, bared teeth, or otherwise told the first dog that he’s not interested, that dog is being a bully. If a dog pursues another dog, and nothing the other dog does can shake him, that dog is being a bully. If one dog body slams or plays roughly and the other dog is trying to get away or is not equally engaged in the roughhousing, it’s time to step in.

Watch those high-speed doggy chases, too. Sometimes it is all in good fun. The dogs chase each other, stop and restart, and look relaxed and happy, with tails up and ears back. But if the “chasee” has his ears forward and his tail tucked and looks scared, or if several dogs are chasing one dog, the dog being chased needs help. If a chase never changes directions — the same dog is always being chased — the chaser(s) might be bullying the other dog.

Entry gates at dog parks are prime spots for scary interactions. If several dogs are milling around the gate — or approach as you and your dog enter the double gate — be very careful. Walking into a mob of strange dogs is a stressful experience for your dog. The dogs might be friendly; they might also harass or attack an entering dog, especially if he seems nervous or defensive. Do your dog a favor and wait until the entryway is clear.

Not all dogs automatically learn the social graces. If your dog needs to learn some manners, try to set up one-on-one play dates with well-socialized dogs who can teach him the boundaries of appropriate dog play. And if you do take him to the dog park, remove him the instant you see him picking on another dog. He will learn that the fun stops when he acts like a bully, and the other dogs and people at the park will appreciate your conscientiousness.

Dog parks can be wonderful places for dogs to socialize and burn off energy. But some dogs are shy or timid; a dog park is too stressful for these dogs. And there are too many stories of dogs being injured or attacked to assume that all dog park experiences will be good ones. Think carefully about whether your dog will enjoy the rough-and-tumble of multi-dog play, and take the time to check out a dog park’s culture before you go.

[1] “A Look at Interactions Between Dogs in Public Dog Parks”

Take Me Out to the Dog Park …

This dog park in North Platte, NE offered lots of shade, even on a 90-degree day.

Friends of ours are planning and building a dog park in their community. I am in awe of their energy and commitment; they’ve got the entire dog-owning community involved. Talking with them about their plans got me thinking about dog parks and some of the research I did with a college class I taught last spring. Dog parks can be a wonderful asset to city-dwelling dog lovers — or they can be rough-and-tumble, scary places. What makes the difference?

Planning is one of the keys to successful dog parks. The dog park culture is another. This post will talk about the physical features that contribute to making great dog parks succeed. My next post, Good Owners Make Good Dog Parks, will delve into dog park culture.[1]

As anyone with a large, fenced back yard knows, just having enclosed green space is not enough to get dogs to exercise; many dogs will just pick a sunny spot and take a nap. But add more dogs and you have a potential problem: in a plain, flat grassy area, dogs are more likely to chase other dogs. Often, once one dog starts a chase, other dogs eagerly join in.

Dog parks with natural or planned “breaks” in the open space are safer for dogs. They force running dogs to change direction or slow down, and give the “chasee” opportunities to escape. “Breaks” can be hills, paths, stands of trees or bushes, a pond or a beach. Benches can also break up open space, but benches encourage the humans to sit, chat with others, and not pay attention to their dogs — which contributes to bad dog park culture.

Besides breaks, dog parks — especially in warm climates — need shade. Plans should include lots of shade trees or even a shelter with a roof.

Water is a wonderful “break” and adds to the fun for the dogs. People tend to keep a closer eye on their dogs around water, too. If the space for a planned dog park is not on the edge of a natural body of water, consider a manmade pond! And of course, if there is a place to swim, a rinsing station is a great idea. At absolute minimum, a dog park should have a hose or fountain for drinking water.

In dog park planning — and visiting — size matters! In a smaller dog park, particularly if it is crowded, dogs are more likely to feel stressed — which leads to defensive behaviors or could make them targets for dog bullies.  In larger spaces, dogs who don’t want to play with the other dogs simply have more room to move away. Many urban areas have dog parks that are a half-acre (or less); for a large, high-energy dog, this is not enough room to really stretch those legs and burn off energy (I know; I live with a dog like that!).

In smaller parks, it is essential to have a separate small dog area. Parks that are several acres and include walking paths or a beach can be safe for dogs of all sizes (so long as the humans are paying attention), but in smaller parks, it is far too easy for small dogs to be injured, even if all of the dogs are behaving appropriately. Dogs in full play mode don’t always pay attention to what’s in their path, and they can’t (or won’t stop on a dime.

If you are choosing a dog park to visit, scope it out before releasing your dog. If it is small and crowded, you might be better off taking the dog for a leashed walk. On the other hand, if you are lucky enough to live near a large, well designed park, do what you can to ensure that the dog park culture will ensure a safe, fun experience for dogs of all sizes!

[1] Thanks to the APDT and Sue Sternberg for their wonderful Webinar, “A Look at Interactions Between Dogs in Public Dog Parks” for information referenced here.

What is your opinion of an E-collar?

I got this question from a friend who is dog-mommy to two wonderful, if highly energetic, girls.

My short answer was that in general, I believe that they are used too often by people who want a “quick solution,” and they are not used correctly — and that therefore they end up being used in a way that is unfair and abusive to the dog. I abhor punitive training and think that in nearly all cases it is not only unnecessary but counter-productive.


I also hesitate to completely rule out the use of an e-collar (an electric shock collar). There are a very, very few cases where the use of an e-collar, with a skilled, ethical, experienced trainer, might be justified. Continue reading

How can I get my dog to stop rolling in smelly stuff?

We summer on a large lake, complete with waterfowl. Our miniature schnauzer likes nothing more than rolling in goose poop, and she abhors almost nothing more than baths.  Can aversion training overcome instinct in this case?

This is a common problem. Dogs’ sense of smell is their primary source of information about the world — and one of their main pleasures is covering themselves in delightful scents. Unfortunately, we tend to disagree with their taste!

This is a natural dog behavior and very difficult to train away. A few suggestions:

Manage the environment: This means curbing your dog’s freedom, at least for a while. Only let her run free when you can keep an eye on her and stay close enough to intervene immediately if she heads toward the poop. No chances to roll in poop equals fewer baths and less frustration.

Work on a solid recall: Initially, do this inside, away from enticing distractions. Slowly work up to calling her to you outside, when she’s off leash. Always use a high-value reward (something she absolutely loves and gets at no other times). Whenever you are outdoors with her, have some treats with you. Practice, with her on leash, calling her toward you when she notices the poop. Lavishly praise and generously reward when she looks at or comes to you (remember, she’s on leash) when there is poop nearby.

Build associations: If you can ever catch her in the act, immediately tell her No! and bathe her or give her a thorough rinsing with the garden hose. If you never catch her in the act, bathe her the instant you see her covered in poop. (Be careful, though. This could simply cause her to be more sneaky about doing it.)
Build strong positive associations with not rolling in poop. When you are outside together, praise and reward her for coming when called, for ignoring poop, for any behavior you like, even if means you randomly go up to her, praise her, and offer her a treat for lying on the grass and being her beautiful self.

It’s doubtful that you will cure her completely of this charming behavior, but you might be able to make it less appealing.