What’s Missing from the Conversation

Alberta, a now-retierd yellow Labrador guide dog, leads DeniI wrote a post a few weeks ago about proposed new rules for flying with service and support animals. Lucky for me, most Thinking Dog readers are kind and thoughtful individuals.

Deni wasn’t so lucky. That could be because she had more than 2,000x as many readers as I generally do … in just the first 3 days (and no, that’s not a typo).

The comments on her article, and on the proposed rules at the DoT site, reveal much about our society. And why the concept of ESAs has been so badly abused. They follow several general themes:

  • People who hate animals, kids, anyone who writes about animals, and pretty much the whole world. (These are best ignored.)
  • People who think all animals should be banned from airplanes, including guide and service dogs, due to their own (or others’) allergies. (Not gonna happen.)
  • People who say they cannot or will not fly if they cannot bring their ESA.
  • People who use service animals and oppose any sort of behavior or health check or documentation.

What is missing from this conversation, as well as from the laws and proposed new rules, is attention to the animals’ welfare and needs.

Some of the people who can’t or won’t fly without an ESA could well be able to meet the legal threshold for a service dog. Others have generalized and severe anxiety or anxiety specifically about flying, so the presence of an animal is of comfort and helps them cope.

I am sincerely empathetic. At the same time, I think that’s a lot of responsibility to place on an animal, especially one that has not been trained to work under stressful circumstances. Public access is stressful for any animal, but especially one that essentially lives in a familiar home, rarely leaving except, in the case of some dogs and cats, for walks around the neighborhood. Airports and airplanes are about as stressful a situation as I can imagine.

I also worry that someone with severe anxiety would be stretched to the limit taking care of their own needs and would be unable to safely handle an animal, intuit and meet its needs, and keep themselves, the animal, and other passengers safe.

The untrained pets used as ESA are often terrified by the commotion, cramped quarters, noise, smells, and general awfulness of airports and airplanes. And that is exactly the problem: No one is evaluating the animals or training them to get used to public access. People with ESAs do not have the right to take them in public (the ADA gives that privilege only to people with both a disability and a trained service animal) and no training is required, so even if the people wanted to prepare their animals, they cannot legally do so.

Like other pets, most ESAs spend the majority of their time at home. Then, suddenly, they are taken to the most stressful place possible, by a person who is extremely anxious. As a living being with needs and fears, the ESA needs and deserves the protection of its person — a person who at that time is very unlikely to be able to provide that protection.

The law currently allows anyone whose mental-health professional (or internet store) supplies them with a letter attesting to their own need for the animal. Nothing addresses the suitability of the animal or its welfare, and nothing safeguards the public from terrified animals (mostly dogs) behaving like terrified animals: Growling, yowling, snarling, lunging, biting, peeing, etc. It’s a testament to how resilient and generally amazing dogs are that there have not been far more bites.

I am a former service dog trainer and am adamantly opposed to creating barriers to access for people with disabilities. At the same time, I do not think it is possible to protect public safety — including the safety of service dog teams — without limitations, such as a public access test and health requirements.

Public access with a service dog in a no-pets area is a privilege that does not include the right to endanger others or trample their rights. The ADA builds that in; a service animal that is dangerous or behaving inappropriately can legally be excluded even if the person has a disability and the animal is fully trained to mitigate that disability. The current ACAA rules on ESAs do not. And it is not reasonable or realistic to expect TSA officers or airline gate agents to be able to assess which animals are safe and which are not — and to be effective at barring those passengers and their animals.

There are ways to make health checks and public access tests easy, certainly no more complicated than getting a disabled parking placard in most states.

Thousands of dog trainers are capable of administering a CGC test, for example. A public access test could be similar, and it could be conducted by any certified dog trainer in a place the team goes anyhow, like Walmart or the supermarket.

Keeping your dog healthy and being able to show that the dog is vaccinated are minimal standards when taking your dog anywhere, even the dog park.

I don’t see these as huge obstacles or burdens. One comment I saw talked about the nearest Walmart being over an hour’s drive and said having to go to a testing site would be an enormous burden. If that person never, ever goes to that distant Walmart, or anywhere else in public with their service dog, they wouldn’t need to do the test. If they do go there, even rarely, doing a test there once every year or so is not a huge ask.

Airlines could help out by keeping paperwork on file, though, as they keep seating preferences and contact details for mileage club members. Asking people to jump through the same hoops every time they fly is absurd, especially for anyone who flies multiple times a year. Linking the health certificate and other info on the team to a flyer’s frequent flyer profile, with a flag for annual updates, is very easy in our digital age.

Allowing only trained, professionally evaluated animals to fly in the cabins of airplanes, and asking that other animals either remain in carriers that fit under a seat or that their owners make other arrangements is common sense. It respects the rights and safety of people with disabilities who have trained their (mostly) dogs and rely on those dogs’ assistance. It also respects the rights and safety of everyone else.

My comments are, of course, my opinions; reasonable people may well disagree. I think that Deni wrote a solidly researched article that presents a real problem and suggests viable solutions. I encourage you to read it, read the proposed rules, and comment. The 60-day comment period opened Feb. 5 and ends in early April.

Can my dog be vegan?

Cali turns away from her food bowl and faces a fence
Cali doesn’t want to be vegan!

I’ve been asked several times whether I think it’s OK to feed a dog a vegan diet. The short answer is that dogs can survive and even thrive on a vegan diet, but it’s not easy and it’s not the optimal diet. Cats cannot be vegan, by the way.

A recent article in Wired addressed this question from the perspective of dog owners’ conflicting beliefs: They are vegan because they oppose using animals for human benefit but they also want to provide the best lives for their dogs (which means letting the dogs eat meat …). I understand the dilemma.

Premium pet food companies understand the dilemma, too. More and more, they are advertising the humane and sustainable nature of the ingredients they use. Is the advertising accurate? I don’t know; my hunch is that some companies are better than others, as with human food producers. Maybe the Whole Dog Journal will add sustainability to its list of criteria in future dog food evaluations (wouldn’t that be great?).

From a nutritional standpoint, I’d advise choosing this path very carefully. Consult with a canine nutritionist or a vet who has studied pet nutrition extensively. That is not a given; many vets take one or no courses on nutrition in vet school and many vet schools receive a lot of funding from large pet-food companies. That is to say, what many vets “know” about nutrition is heavily influenced by the makers of often not very good kibbles. I’ve gotten truly terrible nutritional advice from many otherwise excellent veterinarians.

If your vet is on board and knows a lot about canine nutrition, you can probably work out a vegan or mostly vegan diet that will work for your dog. But it’s not something to do casually; don’t just switch to a vegan food and forget about it. For example, your dog might need more frequent blood work done to test for key nutritional elements, as the recent scares over taurine levels illustrates.

One hypothesis with the many dogs showing low taurine levels is that foods with high levels of vegetable-based proteins and low or no carbohydrates made it harder for the dogs to get full nutritional benefit from the meat-based proteins in those foods. While I haven’t yet seen a definitive answer to that question, it suggests that boosting the amount of plant-based proteins in a dog’s diet has implications beyond whether she’s getting enough protein … which means going vegan or mostly vegan could have health effects that you’re not anticipating, and that even if the dog is a healthy weight and seems to be fine, serious problems could be developing.

So. The long and short answers get us to the same place, which is this: If you’re serious about moving your dog to a more vegan diet, proceed carefully and make sure you’ve got a knowledgeable vet’s supervision and guidance.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.