Do Dogs Have Legal Rights?

Golden retriever Cali with an empty food bowl
WHY is my bowl empty?

An article about dogs’ right to food caught my attention recently.

Dogs in the United States lack legal rights, although some (weak and ineffective) laws exist to criminalize some cruel treatment of dogs and other animals. It’s a question that comes up occasionally — in ownership disputes, custody cases, and sometimes in cruelty cases. But for the most part, dogs (and other nonhuman animals) are considered property, not beings with intrinsic value and rights. This question — and the many possible answers — is addressed in Citizen Canine, a book I enthusiastically recommend.

However, courts in other parts of the world are taking different approaches to legal questions concerning animal rights. The article linked above addresses a recent High Court decision in Delhi, India.

The decision concerns whether residents of a town or community have the right to feed and care for street or “community” dogs. India, like many countries, has an enormous stray dog population.

The court could have addressed only the rights and obligations of the humans in either side of the case: pro-feeding people who were opposed by people who believe the dogs are a health and safety threat.

While confirming the rights of the people to feed the dogs, the court went several steps farther: It also stipulated that the dogs have a right to food.

Significantly, the court spelled out that the dogs’ right to food and medical care stems from their existence as sentient beings with intrinsic worth. The decision even states that dogs have the right to engage in normal (for them) behavior!

In going beyond acknowledging that dogs need food and spelling out that humans have a moral obligation to care for — to protect and show compassion toward — all living creatures, the High Court went farther than U.S. courts have (yet) gone to establish something like legal rights for nonhuman animals.

Though there is also progress on the U.S. front, notably in a case involving Columbian hippos, dogs have a ways to go before U.S. law recognizes them as “persons” with intrinsic value and some of what we usually call “human” rights.

Cali says she’d be happy with a ruling that she has a right to (as much) food (as she wants) and that I have an obligation to provide her with food (on demand), just like those dogs in India got.

Leash Matters

A double leash, a small retractable leash, a leather leash and a coiled fabric leash
Just a few of the leashes in my collection

Choosing a leash for your dog seems like a really simple thing, but, as I have talked to dog owners over the years, I’ve discovered that a poor choice can make walks miserable for you, your dog, or both of you — for years.

Many people buy a leash without giving it much thought. They might get the one that matches the cute collar they’ve selected for their new dog or choose a durable looking chain one. Some people think an extendable or “flexi” leash is a good choice (it’s not; more about that in a moment).

But the wrong leash can be uncomfortable to hold, too heavy for your dog, or actually make walks less safe.

Why I avoid extendable leashes

The idea behind an extendable leash seems sound. You can “lock” it at any length, offering flexibility — or allow your dog more freedom to explore. What could go wrong? How about:

  • The cord ones can get wrapped around a finger or wrist when the dog pulls and cause serious injury (up to and including loss of a finger). The tape or belt ones are less risky, but they are bulky, so the handles are large and cumbersome.
  • Most extendable leashes have large plastic handles where the retractable cord or belt winds up for storage. If/when the dog pulls suddenly, you might drop this awkward handle, then this large plastic monster is clanking on the ground, chasing your dog as she runs away in fear. I’ve seen it happen many times, and had it happen to me during the (very brief) period when I thought an extendable leash was a good idea.
  • Your dog might get tangled around bushes, trees, children, parking meters …
  • You have little control over the dog and if she’s surprised by another dog, tempted to chase a squirrel or cat, or spooked by something, and bolts, you could get hurt. You could also drop the leash (see above).

Why I like leather leashes

I’m not generally a huge fan of leather. I hate leather furniture and car seats, for example. But I nearly always use a leather leash. The handles are easy on my hands. A leather leash won’t scrape or cut my hands — or arms and legs — like a nylon one will if the dog pulls suddenly or the leash gets wrapped around a limb. Leather leashes last for years — The one I use daily on walks with Cali is more than 25 years old. I saddle soap it occasionally to clean it and keep it soft.

What about chain leashes?

Chain leashes with leather handles might seem appealing for their durability and the advantages of a leather handle. But be careful. They might be too heavy for your dog, especially if you walk the dog using a collar. (I use a chest-fastening harness, so there’s no pressure on Cali’s neck. She also is less likely to pull.)

When I got my first dog, a small mixed-breed dog, I bought a chain leash. the metal clasp alone was too heavy, and the whole setup was just wrong for him. I then got the leather leash I still use …

Consider having more than one

Cali has a shorter leash, also leather, that I use when I want more control. For example, if we’re on a road trip and I have to take her to a dog-friendly restaurant patio, I’ll want to keep her close. If I’m training a young puppy, I will also choose a short (3-4 foot) leash. Cali’s usual leash is a little over 6 feet long. She can wander and sniff, but she will come back if I call her and ask her to heel. She’s not happy about it, but she’ll do it.

I usually have an extra long leash or two around — 20 or 30 feet — for training or swimming when I am nervous about letting dogs off leash. I only buy the cotton ones (the nylon ones are rough on the hands) and I tie a knot every 2-3 feet. This makes it easy to step on the leash and stop a dog who bolts suddenly, perhaps in pursuit of a deer. Or a duck. The knots keep the leash from sliding under your shoe.

Other options

There are many more leash options to consider, and if the cute matching leash has a comfortable handle and is a good length for you and your dog, go for it. I’ve had canvas ones; leashes with soft, fleecy handles; elasticized ones that stretch a little to reduce the impact of a pulling dog; braided nylon ones; and double leashes with a single handle, for walking two dogs at once.

So, although I’ve got several leashes, for regular walks, I almost always turn to my favorite leather leash.

But you’re not me! The reason there are so many options out there is that people (and dogs) have different preferences and needs. I encourage you to do your own research — with lots of dog walks to try out the different options. I am sure that your dog will enjoy helping with that project!

Nothing (Much) Is Wrong with Cali!

Golden retreiver Cali smiles as she poses next to PamThe long-awaited Pullman visit date finally arrived.

Cali, a golden retriever, poses in the hollow center of a fallen cedar treeWe drove down the day before, a sunny, golden Sunday. I decided to take the scenic route, along Highway 12 through Idaho. Cali and I stopped a few times along the way — for a walk in our favorite photo spot, for a picnic — and we arrived in late afternoon.

Our appointment was at 10 am. We got to campus early and enjoyed a walk among the fall leaves.

Finally, it was time to go inside. The small-animal clinic is huge, with a vast waiting area, which was filled with dogs of a ll sizes, one or two cats, and assorted pet owners. Cali marched in confidently and popped up to put her paws on the desk and greet the receptionists.

A neurology resident soon came out and sat with us for about a half-hour, taking Cali’s history and explaining the process. Cali had skipped breakfast in case the team wanted to do X-rays and needed to sedate her. She was not thrilled about this and kept nudging me and the resident, asking for cookies.

They finally went off to the exam area, and I had a couple of hours before I would get an initial report. I went back to our hotel to do a little work before check-out.

When I returned for the consultation, the news was good: The neurology team did not think there was anything major (= a tumor) wrong. They thought she might have a mild disc herniation. They asked if I would consent to a blood test to rule out Degenerative Myelopathy, “a non-painful chronic degenerative disease.” I agreed, and I should have those results soon.

They recommended having the orthopedics team examine her as well, and I agreed to that — and to X-rays if that seemed necessary. Off they went.

A few hours passed slowly … I could not get online, but I had some work I could do offline. I watched other dogs and humans come and go.

Finally, the neurology resident returned with more good news. The orthopedics team did a thorough exam and found that Cali has full range of motion and no joint issues; no X-rays were needed. They did find “multiple myofascial trigger points in all limbs — muscle pain likely secondary to compensation for abnormal gait.” Basically, knotty, tense, painful muscles (and she doesn’t even sit at a computer all day!).

The recommended treatments include massage, acupuncture, physical therapy, and a newer NSAID, Galliprant. Cali’s local vet has already talked with me about a local acupuncturist and a physical therapy place in Missoula that offers water therapy. I’ll be scheduling her first appointments very soon, and we’ll both get to swim regularly this winter!

I know that the news could have been much worse. In addition, I fully expected the team to strongly recommend an MRI (very expensive). Though they said we could tell more about what was going on with an MRI, they said it would not change their treatment plan.

I gave Cali some food and, at a little after 4 pm (5 pm in Montana …) we set off for home. We drove the slightly faster I-90 route; even so, it was well after 9 pm when we finally pulled into the driveway.

Green and gold larch trees line the Idaho highway
The scenic route to Pullman is gorgeous in the fall, with the golden Larch shining among the evergreens

Cali ♥ Sid

 Golden retriever Cali gazes up at Sid, a seated man in a blue shirt and tan hatIn last week’s blog post, I shared a problem that Cali was having with her legs. She was slipping a lot, and when she walked, her back legs swung way out to the sides.

Cali goes regularly to a chiropractor here in Missoula, and I had asked the chiropractor if she had any ideas. We’d discussed the ACL tear possibility, but we were both skeptical.

The chiropractor uses laser therapy and manual adjustments to help Cali walk better, but … over several months, the problem persisted.

One evening, I was meeting with my Jewish community group planning committee, and we were selecting dates for our next events. A date was suggested and I said that I couldn’t do it that day because I was “taking Cali to Pullman.” All animal-friendly Missoulians know that that means going to the vet school clinic.

“What’s wrong with Cali?!!!” the other committee members asked, in unison.

I explained briefly, and a fellow committee member and friend, a skilled horsewoman and dog person, spoke up. She described a vet / chiropractor who “works miracles” with dogs and horses who have neurological issues, and said that I “must take Cali to see Sid.”

Sid has a colleague who makes his appointments on his visits to Missoula, about once a month. My friend gave me this “fixer’s” phone number. I called the next day. Got a call back a day later. Spoke to one of the nicest people I have yet to meet.

But, she said, I had just missed Sid and he wouldn’t be back in Missoula for a while. “I’ll just give you his number. Maybe you can take Cali to him.”

I called on a Friday afternoon. Sid suggested that I bring Cali by “now.” In Helena, a couple hours’ drive away. I said I couldn’t that day, but did he have time in the next week or so. We settled on Monday.

Golden retriever Cali sits in front of Sid, in a blue shirt and tan hatLong story short, Deni, Cali, and I journeyed to Helena to meet the magical Sid. Sid adjusted Cali’s back, talked to us about nerves firing and communicating — or not firing. Explained that there was a block in her spine preventing proper nerve signals from reaching her legs.

He doesn’t use any tools, just his hands. Though she startled once or twice, Cali sat patiently for her exam, gazing adoringly at Sid.

He showed me how to massage Cali’s thigh muscles and said that she’d start to develop her atrophied leg muscles over time. He then had me walk Cali around a bit, then looked at her gait and examined her again. He thought things were working properly.

The best part was, he did not think there was a tumor or other serious problem, and he thought he’d gotten things working again. We should come back in a few weeks or next time he was in Missoula.

Golden Retriever Cali twists her head to watch Sid, a man in a blue shirt and tan hatA few weeks later, I got a call from the “fixer.” I had an appointment. I was to meet Sid in the empty lot north of the Town Pump convenience store on North Reserve at 1 pm.

Feeling a little like a character in a spy novel, I did. I wandered around the dusty lot a bit, feeling silly. Soon, though, I saw a Forester pull in with Sid at the wheel, followed by a truck pulling a large horse van.

I was in the right place.

Cali was delighted to see Sid, bouncing and squealing.

Sid said that Cali seemed a little better; he made some more adjustments, and watched her walk a bit. He was satisfied. Cali was love-struck.

He explained that I would see very slow progress, as some of her leg muscles were severely atrophied and needed to develop strength. He added that I should come back to see him in a few months.

I rescheduled the Pullman visit so that I could see if there was any progress, and I waited. And walked Cali. A lot. I took her swimming several times, too.

We’ve been back to see Sid once more, in the same dusty lot. We do both see improvement. She’s still slipping on the floor, but less often. Her gait is a lot better; I only see the legs arcing out when Cali is tired. She’s also more playful and eager to walk, hike, or dance around the house.

I’ve still got that Pullman visit coming up, though. I still want the neurologist to examine Cali. I guess I am hoping for confirmation that there’s nothing wrong with Cali.

Slipping and Sliding

Golden retriever Cali with a tennis ballCali’s has an ongoing issue with her back legs slipping out from under her. I’ve seen some posts on the Facebook group (ick, I know) for her Morris Foundation Golden Retriever Lifetime Study mentioning the same thing … but not always with the same results. So I decided to share Cali’s story in hopes that it might help another dog.

She’s had an odd gait for a while, especially running. Her back legs seemed kind of floppy. One friend said it looked like her whole back end was going to just fly off of her body.

She never seemed to be in any pain, though, and loved to run, hike, and jump off the deck to chase tennis balls.

When I noticed that she was swinging her back legs out to the sides while walking, though, I decided to try to figure out what was happening. It was more noticeable on her right side, but both legs were arcing outward when she walked or ran — more noticeably when she was tired. She was also slipping a lot on our hardwood floors and sometimes on the sidewalk.

We went to her Morris study vet, who took some X-rays and decided that Cali had a partial ACL tear. She prescribed Adequan.

I did the Adequan injections for a while, but I did not think it was helping. And I did not think that Cali had a problem with her knee or ACL. She did not seem to be in any pain and still loved running and jumping.

I took her to see another vet in town, whom I have known for years and who is an excellent diagnostician. He examined Cali and watched her walk inside (slippery floor) and outside, and run. He agreed with me that her knees look fine and she did not seem to be in pain. He thought there might be a spinal or neurological issue, and he recommended consulting with a neurologist.

It turns out that veterinary neurologists are few and far between. None are in Montana, but there is one in Pullman, Washington, at the vet school hospital. With a months-long wait for an appointment.

We made an appointment, and waited. In the next couple of blog posts, I will continue Cali’s story.

Creatures of Habit

Golden retriever Cali rests her head on my knee to tell me it is time to stop workingDogs love routines. Anyone who says dogs have no sense of time have clearly never lived with a dog.

Dogs know when good things are supposed to happen for them. Some dogs serve as highly accurate alarm clocks, which is why it’s possible to train service dogs to remind their humans to take their meds on time.

Cali is a wonderful alarm clock. She even has a snooze setting, and she understands that, on weekends, we get up an hour or so later. If she’s desperate to go out, she’ll deviate from the routine, but otherwise, right on schedule, she lets me know that it’s time to get up.

She also knows when I am supposed to stop working (and prepare her dinner). About 10 minutes before 5 each workday, she comes over and, very gently, pokes me with her nose. Again 10 minutes later if I haven’t gotten up from my chair. At this point, she sits right at my feet and gives me that look. Anyone who has met Cali knows what I mean.

She knows the morning routine, too, and when I am almost at “put Cali’s leash on for her walk,” she bounds off to grab a toy and do her morning dance of joy, racing from living room to dining room to living room several times — a distance of about 6 feet — with the chosen toy. She then lets me put her leash on, and we’re off.

She has a set route for her morning walk, though she allows occasional changes. When we get back, we feed the birds before I start work upstairs, and she keeps watch over the front yard and sidewalk, warning me if other dogs approach. After an hour or two of that, she lets me know it’s time for a break, and we go outside and toss the ball a few times.

Our evening routine is no less set. Dogs get some yogurt or kefir — Koala’s dietician recommends it for the probiotics — go outside, brush their teeth, get a cookie, and go to bed.

How is it, then, that Cali “forgets” the teeth-brushing step, heading straight to bed, every single evening? I have to call her in or follow her to her bed to get at those teeth. The brushing jogs her memory, though, and she promptly appears to collect her cookie. This happens whether Koala is here or not.

Koala is very good about brushing her teeth, even reminding me if it looks like I may have forgotten (I’m not sure what that looks like, but Koala knows). So, while it makes sense that the sound and scent of Koala eating her cookie might jog Cali’s memory, I’m not sure what does that in Koala’s absence. I personally do not eat a cookie after brushing my teeth, so no reminder there.

Koala, a black Lab, noses an orange treat ball in her downstairs play roomAnother routine that Koala is more strict about than Cali is the timing (and existence) of puppy lunch and snufflematting. Cali is delighted when these occur, and she occasionally does ask for the snufflemat, but she’s willing to let the matter drop if I am busy. Not Koala; her routines are very important to her, particularly if they revolve around food.



No Quick Fixes

a medium-sized whit and tan dog chases a bird
Photo from Honest Kitchen

When dealing with a dog behavior issues, the options usually include training, often including some sort of equipment or tools; and, for some problems,  medication.

No matter which combination you choose, thought, there’s also time. There are no quick fixes. A single consultation with a dog trainer is not going to transform your dog.

I have recently talked with dog owners dealing with significant issues: Severe anxiety in one case and high prey drive in two other cases. All of the humans are deeply committed to their relationships with their dogs and willing to work toward a solution.

Though I don’t love the idea of medicating a dog to address a behavior issue, in the case of severe anxiety, I think that might be needed. If a dog is so anxious and quick to respond to whatever is triggering her anxiety, the right medication might be able to take the edge off of that anxiety and get the dog into a state where training is possible. I suggested that this person talk with her dog’s vet about options.

Tools or equipment for controlling a dog or getting her attention won’t help if the dog is not able to focus on anything but the trigger. And aversive equipment like a slip collar (or worse, a shock collar) would simply make things worse by adding a painful negative association to the already terrifying trigger.

I do not think that medication alone is a solution; the dog can learn new ways to respond to a trigger. The medication is a crutch to help get her there, allow her to focus on training. Depending on the dog, the trigger, and the level of anxiety, it’s possible that the dog won’t need the medication after training.

Prey drive is a tougher issue. I’m not aware of any medications that would help here. I think this is a question of a lot of behavior modification work, along with lifelong management of the dog’s environment to avoid letting the dog chase and catch a prey animal.

In these two cases, I suggested that the humans find trainers with experience dealing with high prey-drive dogs and who use tools and training approaches that they, the owners, are comfortable using on their dogs.

The training process can take a long time — weeks to months — and you’re never going to eradicate the dog’s prey drive. You might get to a point where the dog behaves in a way that you can live with, but you’ll always need to be aware of the triggers, whether it’s squirrels, cats, cars, or (worst case) “anything that moves” and be prepared to manage the dog’s response.

I have a lot of respect and admiration for these dog owners who each really want to do the right thing for their dog — and who are investing time, effort, and significant money in working on significant problems. They are all examples of the best of the dog-human relationship.


Clean Up Your Own Mess!

Koala and I had a little argument recently because I expected her to clean up after herself and she … resented that.

No, I haven’t figured out how to get dogs to pick up their own poop. They can pick up their own toys, though.

Koala chose an S-shaped blue tug toyToward the end of their time here, Deni was out, and Koala and I were in the basement, where there’s a well-stocked toy basket. (There are overly full toy baskets on each floor … and dog beds … it’s kind of a dogs-first household.)

Koala wanted a specific toy. It’s a great toy from West Paw, a Montana company. Anyhow, the toy happened to be at the very bottom of the toy box. Of course.

Koala methodically removed every toy in the box, distributing them around the rapidly emptying box. She finally reached her toy and happily pulled it out.

She brought it to me, asking for a tug game. I played with her for a minute, then took the toy. “We’ll play more once you’ve cleaned up your mess,” I told her. She looked at me, turned her back, and lay down.

I asked her to “get a toy” and “put it away,” things she routinely does. She ignored me.

I repeated the requests in a firmer voice. She got up, picked up a toy, and dropped it near the box. Looking at me and sighing. It was soooo hard.

I did not relent. No longer asking, I said in my best “I mean it!” voice, Get the toy and put it IN the box.

She did, then lay back down.

“Nope,” I told her. “You need to put all of the toys away.”

One by one, she got the toys and put them into the box.

When she finished, I offered her the toy and suggested a tug game.

“Nope,” she said, bu turning her back to me and lying down with an annoyed sigh.

Normally, when Cali and Koala put their toys away, they get rewards for their efforts. But since she had so deliberately taken all of the toys out of the box, a behavior I did not want to encourage, I did not give her any reward other than the offer of playing with the chosen toy.

Koala was annoyed at having to do it — and annoyed by the lack of rewards.

She got over it pretty quickly, though, and decided that she was willing to forgive me if that meant she’d get a belly rub …

Peer Pressure

Black poodle Maisy and golden retriever Cali wait for a bagel shaped dog treat
Cali and Maisy share a doggy-bagel snack after playing outside.

One of the first things I learned in dog-training school was the ways that dogs synchronize with their humans. That’s why using an upbeat, energetic voice can get dogs amped up for a training class — and a low, calm voice can help them settle down.

But I’m increasingly finding examples of how dogs synchronize with their doggy friends as well. I first saw it with Maisy, Cali’s BFF, who clearly takes her cues from Cali when we’re on walks.

Maisy often gets very excited or anxious around unfamiliar dogs, and she used to get that way around unfamiliar people, too. But when we all went walking together, Maisy saw how much Cali loves meeting new people.

Instead of being nervous when a stranger approaches, Cali strains toward them, entire body wagging an eager hello. Cali has not figured out that not all humans want to pet the dog.

At first, Maisy would watch, uncertain and ready to bark, while Cali greeted people and made new friends. Cali convinced her to try it though, and Maisy has decided that saying hello and getting pats and compliments is fun. She’s not quite sure about other dogs yet, but then again, neither is Cali.

The next example of peer pressure and inter-dog dynamics came during playtime. When there are two dogs, they play together well; when there’s a third dog, two tend to gang up on one.

Unfortunately, Cali is often the gang-ee.

She and Koala often play well together, though sometimes Koala can be a little … pushy. Cali’s pretty confident about telling her to back off, and, if that doesn’t work, Cali literally takes her ball and goes home. Well to her little hideout in the back corner of her yard.

Maisy and Cali play very well together. They are BFFs.


When the three of them are together, Koala and Maisy become like the mean girls in middle school. They grab Cali’s tail and play tug. They each grab an ear. They behave like brats.

When all three are together, I have learned to organize separate play pairs. Cali and Koala each get a chance to play with Maisy — without each other. And Maisy goes home very tired and happy.


Paralympics Give Service Dogs a Podium

Israeli athletes march in the Paralympics opening ceremony with a yellow Lab guide dog at the front of the image
Photo from Huffington Post / Buda Mendes via Getty Images

The 2020 Paralympics wrapped up recently; a year delayed but worth the wait.

Accompanying some of the athletes were assistants with four paws and furry coats: Several athletes brought their service dogs along! Two even marched in the Opening Ceremony with the Israeli team. Belgian and Canadian athletes were also photographed with their guide / service dogs during the Paralympics. However, other athletes, including an American runner, were not permitted to bring their guide or service dogs into Japan for the Paralympics.

Japan has a mixed record on accommodating service and guide dogs, and many disability rights advocates hope that the Paralympics focused enough attention on the problem to lead to change.