Why bother?

Sophie, a large mixed-breed, chews an enormous stick
Off leash time is as important as regular walks

Lots of people who have dogs rarely walk them. A recent UK study found that fewer than half of the respondents walked their dogs daily, and that, when they did, the walks were very short. I read a similar study several years ago on US dog owners.

Some dog owners leave their dogs outside (alone) for several hours a day, assuming that the dog will take care of her own exercise and toileting needs.

That’s not okay. Why bother haveing a dog if you are not going to meet her needs and take care of her?

Dogs are very social and need to be part of a family group. If you have two dogs, they can provide company for one another (if they like each other), but they still need their human family. It’s not enough to put down food twice a day and open the door to send the dog outside.

Walks provide mental stimulation and a chance to bond. They allow dogs to catch up on the news and explore the world beyond their own house and yard. They are also great for the people, providing regular exercise, fresh air, and a chance to relax.

Even better for the dog — a chance to run off leash while the human walks. If you are fortunate enough to live near an open space where it’s safe to hike with your dog off leash, try to build that into your schedule at least a couple times a month.

I know that many people who have dogs work full time and also have families. They don’t have a lot of free time. But the dog is a member of the family and deserves some attention too. Make play and exercise time with the dog a high-priority part of your daily schedule. You’ll all feel better and, guess what? Your restless, high energy dog will be better behaved, because she’ll be getting her needs met for exercise, mental stimulation, and connection with her family.

 

 

 

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How do I provide mental stimulation for my dog?

Cali sleeps on her dog bed, cradling a tennis ball with her paws.
A tired dog is a good dog.

Trainers are great at telling dog owners that their dogs’ “bad” behavior is due to boredom. The trainers might not always be as clear about what those dog owners should do about it.

Many people who have dogs also have jobs. Jobs that actually require them to show up someplace other than their home and work on things other than entertaining the dog. Unreasonable, right? So says Cali.

Fortunately for all of these dogs, a multibillion-dollar industry exists for the sole purpose of convincing us humans to fork over lots of money to purchase toys to entertain our dogs. Toys aren’t the only way to offer mental stimulation to a bored stay-at-home dog. Here are some ideas:

  • Long daily walks — This one is good for both of you! Let the dog sniff to her heart’s content. This could mean the walk takes a long time without covering much ground, but allowing for a smell walk every day — or dedicating part of an exercise walk to smell — will offer your dog more mental stimulation and make the walk much more fun.
  • Doggy daycare or hiking groups — Once or twice a week is enough for many dogs. Being with other dogs offers stimulation. Walking and sniffing in new places also does. Several hours of that can tire even the most indefatigable adolescent.
  • A class — You do have to be present for this one, but a rigorous class can provide mental and physical challenges that burn off some of that excess energy. Look for agility, Rally, nose work, basic manners, even prep for social therapy dog certification. Again, being around other dogs, even if they don’t really interact, is stimulating, as is learning new things. And you can practice for a few minutes each evening, giving you great bonding time with your dog and, you guessed it, challenging him and tiring him out. (Sense a theme here?)
  • Play games based on what you learned in that class — after doing nose work classes with both Jana and Cali, I played hide and seek games where I hid their “bait box,” the scent we used in class, and let them search. It takes only about 10 minutes to do 3-4 searches, and the dogs loved it.
  • Home-schooling — A trainer friend recommends books by Kyra Sundance for simple instructions on teaching your dog fun and easy tricks. It’s great for your relationship (unless you lose your patience …). Offer lots of treats, keep it fun, and keep sessions to about 5 minutes.
  • Treat toys — Last but certainly not least, treat toys are a staple. There’s a huge variety on the market. Some are interactive, which means you have to actually play with the dog … but many can be left with the dog when you go to work. Kongs are the most familiar, and there are literally thousands of “recipes” for stuffing Kongs if you Google it. Try several types and see what your dog likes. Experiment to find stuffings that the dog likes enough that she’ll keep working at the toy until it’s empty, but that she can’t lick clean in 5 minutes or less. Each dog is different: Jana could clean a Kong in seconds flat, but Cali loses interest when it’s still half full.
    A caveat: If you see that the dog is able to easily damage the toy, throw the toy away. You want durable toys that your dog loves but won’t destroy. Leave two or three with the dog when you head out to work in the morning. Hide them to make it even more challenging. If your dog loves treat toys, buy a bunch and rotate them. Keep it interesting. One friend who had two black Labs kept a large bin in her freezer filled with stuffed Kongs and other toys so she always had a supply ready. Inspect them every so often and toss the ones that are cracking, have chunks bitten out, or otherwise seem unsafe.
  • Safe chew toys — Identify safe chew toys and let the dog have access to these all the time. Consumables like rawhide are not safe and the dog should not have those when you are not around to supervise. I use antlers, but I know that there are many opinions on what is safe, ethical, etc. so you’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.

Offering mental stimulation pays off; even if you do the stimulating activities in the evening after work, the dog will be less bored overall. This should result in less destructive behavior. If your dog is young, particularly those 6 months to about 2 or 3 years old, there is no amount of stimulation or exercise that will truly tire him out. But the more acceptable options you offer, the less time the dog will spend destroying your home, shoes, and clothing. (Also: Young, untrustworthy dogs should not have the run of the house when you are not there. But that is a whole separate discussion.)

 

 

Are Doggy DNA Tests Worthwhile?

A Puli dog walks on a dirt road.
Is your dog part Puli? Probably not, no matter what the DNA panel says. Creative Commons photo by Rennender

DNA tests started out as a fun way to try to figure out a mixed-breed dog’s genetic makeup. Many people I know who’ve done them have gotten results that made me a little skeptical — high percentages of extremely rare breeds. I am not a geneticist, though, and it all seemed harmless enough.

But.

People are using — and the testing companies are marketing — these tests in two ways that could be very, very bad for dogs: to attempt to predict dogs’ future health problems and to “tailor” behavioral training. And, according to an excellent column in Nature, the tests are extremely inaccurate.

Let’s start with the problem of trying to tailor behavioral training to the supposed mix of breeds in your dog. Your dog is a unique individual. Whether purebred or mixed, each dog’s behavior is affected to some extent by genetic drives — some dogs want to herd everything; some want to chase whatever moves. It’s also enormously affected by personality and experience. Within a breed, within a litter, even, the personalities and drives can be very different.

A good trainer tailors her teaching to the individual dog, of course, but she bases her work on the dog in front of her — not on some possibly wildly inaccurate list of breed percentages. If a dog is half Lab and half German shepherd, do you reward with food half the time, since the shepherd half might not be food focused? Do you use harsher methods half the time if your dog’s ancestry might lie in a military dog line? It’s silly when you start to parse out what it might mean in day-to-day training and life. A smart dog owner will choose a trainer who uses motivational methods tailored to the dog based on her hands-on experience working with that dog.

But a far more dangerous use of these tests is in attempting to predict future illnesses. The Nature article, and these related articles in the Washington Post and the Undark website explain the problems with this in great detail. In sum:

  • The mapping of a single gene mutation to a specific disease is far from foolproof. Genes express themselves differently in different breeds, so a gene that is linked to a condition in one breed might not behave the same way in another breed. And no one really knows what happens in mixed-breed dogs.
  • Having a specific gene mutation might (or might not) increase the risk of a particular disease. Basing a decision to euthanize your dog on very imprecise data, rather than on the actual dog’s health and symptoms, is cruel.
  • People unnecessarily panic when they get the results that show gene mutations — which might be completely meaningless. They pay for — and subject their dogs to — unnecessary, stressful, and expensive tests, which generally don’t tell them anything conclusive anyhow.

The truth is, genetic testing in humans works much the same way … results are often highly inaccurate; they are not predictive; and they could cause people to panic and get unnecessary “treatment” for a disease they think they might get some day. But as an adult, you get to make that choice for yourself. Subjecting your dog to it — or killing him out of fear of what might happen — is horrible!

The testing companies are businesses. They make money by selling you the tests. They also make money by selling the huge amounts of data they collect on test subjects. Veterinary clinics are also businesses, which many people lose sight of. Some vets are ethical and don’t push expensive tests. Others … not so much. Vets can make money by suggesting further testing, special diets that they sell, treatment … there is a definite conflict of interest that can exploit loving pet owners’ worst fears.

So, if you’re curious about whether your pup has some Puli or Xoloitzcuintli in his past (unlikely), go ahead and do the test. Just don’t base decisions about his medical care on the results. Train, and care for, the dog in front of you — his behaviors, his quirks, and his medical symptoms.

Choosing a Dog Food

I’ve gotten some questions about choosing dog foods, particularly since this post was published: Should Your Dog Go Grain-Free? Here are some guidelines (and opinions) I recently provided to people who asked:

  • I’ve seen wonderful results with dogs eating mostly or entirely raw diets. These can be fresh, frozen, dehydrated, or homemade. I personally would not do homemade; it’s a lot of work, I don’t want all that meat in my vegetarian kitchen, and it’s challenging to ensure you are meeting all of the dog’s nutritional needs.
  • For dehydrated, Honest Kitchen is a good brand that is easy to find in good pet stores and online. If you buy directly from the company, you get free treats and other rewards (well, your dog does …).
  • For frozen, Primal and Instinct are nationally available; check in high-end pet stores for local or regional brands. Cali eats Steve’s Real Food, which is not available everywhere. Getting frozen food delivered is really expensive. Learn more here: Dog Food Advisor.
  • For kibble, I can’t say it enough: Choose a food from the Whole Dog Journal’s list. They look into ingredient quality and sourcing and manufacturing practices. They really do their homework.
  • Never buy dog food or treats at the supermarket. Health food stores and natural grocers are a possible exception. If you live in a less urban area, feed stores might stock a wide variety of pet foods and treats; watch quality and check ingredients, but these places might be less expensive than high-end pet stores.
  • That said, shop around. I’m considering switching Cali’s kibble to a brand that uses higher quality ingredients than her current Canidae. It actually costs less — and the real attraction is that I can get it at the high end store where I get her frozen food.
  • For dog treats, look for things that are simple: dried meat or fish, locally baked, few-ingredient biscuits. Avoid anything with artificial colors, preservatives, or ingredients you can’t pronounce. (That’s good advice for choosing your own treats, too!)
  • There’s no need to specifically seek grain-free foods, but many of the top brands have little or no grain. I do avoid wheat and especially corn, a common filler in cheap dog foods. Most of that filler ends up on your lawn. And, corn is a common allergen in dogs.
  • If your dog is gassy or has digestive issues, try a diet change. The protein could be wrong, or there might just be some ingredient or combination that doesn’t work well with your dog’s digestive system.
  • Food sensitivities are a common cause of itchy dogs. And ear problems. If your dog seems itchy and you don’t think it’s a seasonal allergy, take a look at her food. Eliminate corn and wheat. And chicken. If that doesn’t help, consult someone knowledgeable about canine nutrition (NOT necessarily your vet!).

Choosing a Protein

  • Some people prefer to feed a diet with multiple protein sources. When Cali had digestive issues as an adolescent, I decided that that made it too hard to know what was causing the problem.
  • I tend to avoid chicken-based kibbles, since many dogs are sensitive to it and since a lot of the larger dog food manufacturers aren’t using the highest quality chicken. I don’t want my dog eating meat from animals that were loaded with hormones and steroids, for example.
  • Very few dogs need exotic proteins. Don’t spend the money unless you know your dog is allergic to the more common, and more affordable, meats.
  • Pay attention to your dog. If she’s always hot, seeks the cool spot in the house, or gets hotspots or other inflammatory problems, avoid lamb and other “warm” proteins. Beef and turkey are neutral. Duck and most fish are “cool” proteins. On the other hand, if your dog loves the sun and wants to sleep under the covers and suffers even in a Florida winter, do look for lamb-based foods. You might think the idea of warming and cooling foods is mumbo-jumbo, but it has definitely helped both Cali and her sister Dora resolve recurrent hotspot issues. I’m a believer.

A New Puppy!

No, I am not getting a new puppy! A good friend is getting one though, so I have been thinking about puppy prep lately. In no particular order, here are some things we talked about.

Socialization

We visited my favorite local training school, Sit Happens, so that my friend could meet her puppy-to-be’s kindergarten teacher. We watched several young puppies play in carefully supervised small groups, and talked about drop-in playtime, classes, and, in good time, a more formal manners class. Little Maisy will be very well educated. Best of all, I get to go to puppy class, and I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night with the puppy!

Food

We selected a good quality, reasonably priced food for Maisy, making sure that it was from a brand on the Whole Dog Journal’s approved list. They do all the homework of choosing quality foods, checking on the manufacturing processes, where ingredients are sourced, and whether the foods are nutritionally sound and include high-quality, identified, meat-based proteins.

Toys

I suggested getting lots of chew toys, especially ones that can hide treats. Maisy will spend a few hours at home each morning and afternoon while her family is off at work or school. She’ll need to develop a hobby, preferably one that doesn’t entail thousands of dollars in repairs and remodels to the house. So. Chew toys.

A play pen

Little Cali, age 10 weeks, shares Jana's dog bed
Cali appreciated the comfort of her big sister’s dog bed from her first day home. She never chewed on or ripped it. Not all puppies are as wise.

I lent the doting parents an ex-pen to create a safe space for Maisy when she can’t be supervised. I suggested taping heavy-duty plastic to the floor, as my friends did when our girls (Cali and Dora) were young. Whenever the humans are away or distracted, I advised putting Maisy in her safe space with some chew toys. Of course, when they are home, they will spend lots of time playing with her and cuddling her outside the pen. And rushing her outside!

Maisy also has a large crate to sleep in, complete with cozy crate pad. And a plush bed for when she’s mature enough to sleep on it, not destroy it. Cali was ready for a big-girl bed pretty quickly, and Maisy might well show similar good sense and appreciation for creature comforts.

Grooming

I advised getting the puppy used to having her teeth brushed right away. It’s best to start slowly, letting her lick some tasty chicken-flavored dog toothpaste off the brush (or a finger), then gently starting to brush. Cali loved brushing her teeth as a puppy. Now she’s reluctantly willing to do it, for a cookie.

Same goes for nail trims and brushing. Start right away but introduce it all very gradually and use lots of treats. It’s so much easier to trim a dog’s nails when she’s used to having it done. Cali doesn’t love it, but I can Dremel her nails in a few minutes with minimal fuss. I know several people who cannot touch their dogs’ nails and whose vets or groomers need at least two helpers. It shouldn’t be that traumatic. If you are fortunate enough to get your dog as a youngster, take advantage of the opportunity to introduce grooming early and painlessly.

Sleep

I advised the new puppy parents to rest up, since Maisy will demand a lot of time and energy during the first days as she settles in — and even more throughout her adolescence. I was exhausted for several weeks after getting Cali, and she was a pretty easy puppy.

It’s worth it though; Maisy will no doubt be a great addition to the family.

Over the Top

Jana, a white golden retriever, smile happily as she shows off the sand coating her entire body.
Jana was happiest at the beach, covered in as much sand as she could rub into her fur.

Two people sent me this article for the July 4 New York Times on the absurd lengths that people go to to “pamper” their pets. I am skeptical that it is truly pampering for many (most?) pets. It’s really what the human owners think of as pampering or as necessary; I do not think that the pets themselves would choose … OK, where do I start:

Neuticals? Too easy. These fake manly bits exist exclusively for the humans who cannot get past the horror of neutering … a human. Dogs don’t care. In fact, dogs who suffer miserably when forced to live in a human world following human rules are generally far less frustrated, less anxious, and possibly less aggressive post-alteration. Many more of them actually get to remain in their comfy homes, too.

Gender non-conforming pets? Since the reasons given for what is termed “gender reassignment surgery” in pets sound plausibly medically justified, I am not too upset about the examples given. But the discussion of gender-(non)conformity and pets is … absurd. The ideas of gender come from the humans. The dogs go about their doggy lives peeing in whatever position  works best for them and don’t give each other any grief about how (or where) they do it. We could learn from them. And, yes, they mount one another, even if they are female. It’s not all about sex; sometimes it’s about status or control. It’s a very doggy thing to do, even if it is rude.

The idiotic haircuts and styling are a step too far. Even dogs who enjoy going to the groomer — and most dogs don’t — don’t need all that fuss and oh-so-human bother. Let dogs be dogs.

Which brings us to the worst offense: Cosmetic surgery. I cannot believe there are vets who would do this, but I guess in any profession, there are some who are just in it for the money. “Popular procedures include tummy tucks, nose jobs and eyebrow and chin lifts,” according to the NYT article. Seriously? Isn’t there a veterinary code of ethics? In what universe is forcing unnecessary surgery on a sentient, sensitive, loving being who cannot (and would not) consent even close to ethical?

Again: Let dogs be dogs. Want to pamper your dog? Forget the spa and the glitter. Head for the dog beach or a nice creek. Spend a couple of hours walking in a forest, preferably where the dog can safely be off leash. Heck, stay home, toss a ball for a few hours (“Heaven …” Cali murmurs), and fire up the grill. Throw an extra burger or steak on for your best buddy. (“Is that even possible …?” Cali wonders. “Does it have to be a tofu hot dog?”). Wrap up with a long belly rub (for the dog) while you watch TV together (DOGTV is not necessary or even very interesting to many dogs) or sit outside and stargaze.

Dogs love to be pampered, sure. But their idea of pampering is not the same as ours. If the spa really wanted to appeal to the dogs, they’d replace the oatmeal soak and blueberry facial with a “rotten fish roll” — and I don’t mean bread. Or, they’d swap out the mud “mask” for a (post-shampoo) chance to wallow in a mud bath — then shake off in an all-white room provisioned with a freshly laundered white bedspread and pristine rug to roll on. That’s the ticket!

Buyer Beware!

Cali came from the best breeder I know! Do your research before taking home an adorable puppy.

I shouldn’t even need to say this … but don’t ever buy a puppy online.

First of all, you’re exposing yourself to scams. Unfortunately, internet fraud is very, very common, and people are not above making a buck by offering nonexistent puppies for sale to gullible people, lured in with adorable puppy photos. Read more in this Washington Post article, “How much is that doggy on the website.”

A law passed a few years ago attempted to crack down on internet puppy sales by requiring that seller have a physical location where buyers could see and pick up the puppies, but that’s hard to enforce.

A second problem with puppy purchases is, of course, the likelihood of purchasing a puppy mill puppy. This is terrible for so many reasons, among them: It feeds a business model that is based on mistreating dogs; the breeding dogs are often not only mistreated, they are unhealthy and could pass genetic, temperamental, and other flaws on to their puppies; and the puppies’ first weeks are spent in unhealthy, frightening, and damaging conditions. This makes everything from house training to manners and socialization far more challenging and sets up new puppy owners for a lot of unnecessary challenges and, often, failure.

One way to avoid puppy mill puppies is not purchasing online. Another is not purchasing at pet stores. If the risk of puppy mill puppies isn’t enough to convince you, consider that you and your family could also get sick. Another Washington Post article (shout out here to the best newspaper in America!) has more: “People are getting sick from a bacterial disease — and pet-store puppies might be to blame.”

Where should you get a puppy?

If you are particular about getting a specific breed, look for a reputable breeder. Good signs include:

  • Very thorough interview before breeder will even consider selling you a puppy
  • Breeder will not ship puppy to you; you must pick up the puppy in person
  • Breeder does not breed huge numbers of litters
  • Breeder insists on taking puppy back if you change your mind
  • Breeder knows where “her” dogs are; all of them, even older puppies whelped years ago
  • Breeder can prove that genetic and health checks are done on all breeding dogs
  • Even better — you know dogs who came from this breeder

If you’re less attached to getting a purebred puppy, look at breed rescue and other shelters and rescues in your area. The plus: you will meet your dog before taking him home. The minus: no guarantees on breeding, health, temperament, or early experiences. These dogs could come with a lot of baggage. Then again, so can a well-bred puppy. Don’t believe me? Read The Education of Will for a harrowing example.

The bottom line is, there are no guarantees, but choosing your puppy carefully is an essential first step. Relationships are hard, even when they’re with adorable four-footed fuzzballs.