Thermoregulation

*This article was written back in April, but only getting around to posting it now! The cold snap may feel like a distant memory, but we all know the weather in this part of the world can be very changeable, so I haven’t counted on summer’s arrival yet!*

fia in the snowHere in Ireland, we’ve recently survived a cold-snap, where bread supplies were threatened, work places closed, and the country generally ground to a halt. Fia, my 8 year old greyhound, hadn’t seen a proper snow since she joined the family five years ago, so I was eager to see what she thought of it. Thankfully, it was a real hit! She loved tearing around in the snow, but despite her rather fetching jumper, she didn’t like staying out in the cold too long (unsurprising, for a greyhound!).

Anyway, it got me thinking that most of us don’t give that much thought to our dogs’ temperature, particularly in the winter time. Thermoregulation is most commonly discussed in the hot weather, but for many dogs, it should be a consideration in the colder weather too.

So today, I’m going to take a look at some of the science behind thermoregulation!

Temperature

Your dog’s temperature should be 38.3-39.2 celsius (it’s 37 for humans). Whilst most of us are happy to leave the task of taking a dog’s temperature rectally to the vet, in a recent blog post on pain in dogs I mentioned how good dogs are at hiding pain, so a thermometer can be a really useful tool for providing vital information about your dog’s health. If you suspect your dog isn’t feeling well, being able to take his temperature could help you decide whether or not he needs urgent input from the vet.

You can buy a pet thermometer from the likes of Amazon or viovet for about a tenner, and I think it’s a really good thing to have in your tool kit.

How dogs regulate their temperature

Maintaining an optimal temperature for the body to function is a feature of physiological homeostasis and is crucial to survival. Different species have various methods for regulating their temperature but animals can be largely categorised as either endotherms or ectotherms. Most mammals, humans and dogs included, are endotherms, which means they generate the heat they need to regulate their temperature internally (ectotherms, on the other hand, maintain their body temperature using external sources, for example, a lizard who lies on a hot rock to heat up).

Thermoregulatory strategies can be behavioural, physiological or anatomical. Behavioural strategies could include seeking shade in warm weather or getting close to another dog or human in cold weather, physiological strategies include shivering, panting or vasodilation (bringing blood from the core of the body to the skin where it can be cooled)/vasoconstriction (when blood vessels near the surface of the skin narrow to direct blood back to the core), whilst anatomical strategies include having fur or body fat.

Interesting Fact:

Countercurrant heat exchange occurs when heat from the hot blood in the arteries is transferred to the colder blood in the veins. Dogs have such a system in their paws, whereby the arteries and veins in the footpad are very close together, allowing warm blood in the artery to heat the blood in the veins which has been cooled by contact with the cold air or ground. This means that the blood is warmed up before returning to the body, allowing the body to be protected from any cooling effect and to keep the paws at a constant temperature.

This system can also be used for cooling. The brain is the organ most at risk from over-heating, so dogs have another counter currant heat exchanger between the carotid arteries and vessels to the brain, this time the heat from the arterial blood is cooled by the venous blood returning from the nose and mouth.

What affects thermoregulation in dogs

There are a number of factors that will affect how well your dog can regulate their temperature, including age, breed, size, weight, health, coat type, and even colour.

Age

Both puppies and older dogs are more susceptible to the effects of heat and cold, and less able to regulate their temperature, so extra care is required.

Breed

Certain breeds of dogs are better suited to hotter or colder climates. Huskies, with their thick double-layered coats for instance, will be much better at managing in colder weather than Staffordshire bull terriers, with their shorter coats. Greyhounds, who have both a thin, single coat, and a low percentage of body fat, will cope less well with extremes of temperature on either end of the spectrum.

Brachycephalic breeds (pugs, bulldogs, etc) tend to struggle in the heat as their inefficient panting effects their ability to cool down.

Size

Bergmann’s rule tells us that bigger body size allows for greater conservation of heat. Small dogs have a higher percentage of skin surface in relation to their overall mass, and so lose heat quicker.

Weight

Fat is an excellent insulator, so while dogs who have a high percentage of body fat are less likely to suffer from the effects of cold weather, they are more likely to suffer in hot weather.

Health

Dogs who are in less than optimal health will struggle to regulate their temperature.

Coat types

There are many different types of coat, each with different features. Some dogs are double coated- they have a shorter fluffy layer as an undercoat, and a hairier overcoat. These coats are very warm and insulating. On the other end of the spectrum you can find hairless dogs, such as the Chinese crested dog. In between, you’ll find curly poodle coats, corded Kommodor coats, single greyhound coats, all with varying abilities to insulate. As well as keeping dogs warm in cold weather, their coats can also function as a barrier to sun and heat, actually cooling them in the summer, so beware of having your dogs shaved for the summer months!

Colour

Dogs with dark coats will absorb heat from the sun, and suffer more from the effects of hot weather.

alfie cooling down

A cool, damp towel helps Alfie regulate his temperature in the hot weather.

 

Ensuring your dog is comfortable in the heat or the cold

Beds

Dogs spend a lot of time sleeping, so it’s really important that their sleeping area facilitates thermoregulation. Choice is paramount in this regard. Make sure that wherever your dog is sleeping, they have access to the floor in case they want to stretch out and cool down. Providing pillows and blankets can make their beds warm and cosy. Beds with comfortable high backs can help keep drafts off your dogs while they sleep and provide something to snuggle into. In particularly cold weather, offering a hot water bottle wrapped in towel may be welcome. If you’ve got a dog who feels the cold, think about how cold your house gets overnight. Pyjamas may be required, or you may wish to have the heat come on for a couple of hours at the time when the house would otherwise be at its coldest. You can also get beds which have a sleeping bag effect, so that the dog can burrow under the cover if they need shelter. When the weather is very hot, your dog may appreciate a damp towel on the ground that they can lie on if they get too hot.

If your dog is too cold or too warm they may have problems sleeping and move about, bark or ask to go out to the toilet overnight.

Walks

In extremes of temperature, you may wish to re-evaluate your dog’s exercise routine. In hot weather, the pavements can become burning hot, making any outdoor walking during the day very painful for your dog. Check the pavement by putting your hand on it for 5 seconds. Walking first thing in the morning or late at night can be better. During the day, you can do some nosework with your dog if they seem bored. Read more here!

alfie paddling

In the hot weather, a paddle in the sea will be a lot more pleasant than walking on hot concrete.

In cold weather, your dog may need a coat or jumper, depending on how cold it is, what age they are and what sort of natural coat they have. Avoid going out for long periods of time in the cold weather with your dog, and avoid putting them in situations where they have to stay still for too long. In the snow, be sure to pay extra attention to their paws- make sure that snow and ice don’t stick to the hair between their toes, and rinse their feet after walks if roads have been salted. You can also get special paw wax that can help protect their pads.

Clothes

Doggy clothes have never been more popular. However, many of the clothes produced are more for fashion than practicality. Clothes have the potential to make your dog uncomfortable and to hamper their movement, so it is important to choose wisely. I have found this to be particularly true with older dogs- my senior lad Alfie who was arthritic needed clothes that required no stepping into or wrestling legs in and out of.

My PDTE colleague Sonja has put together a great guide on coats for dogs, which you can read here.

I’ve mentioned pyjamas and for dogs who feel the cold, these can make a real difference.

alfie pjs

Fleece pyjamas kept Alfie warm in his old age.

The disadvantage of pyjamas is that the dog cannot remove them themselves, so I always feel these are best used under supervision so you can tell if your dog wants them taken off. Whilst indoors, I find the following useful indicators of my dog’s temperature:

  • Ears (cold ears alert me to a need for central heating or a layer of clothing/a blanket);
  • Curling up tight, or trying to get uncharacteristically close can be a sign of coldness;
  • Restlessness overnight- can occur when the dog is too hot or too cold;
  • Panting or lying stretched out in the coolest part of the room can indicate that your dog is too hot

In hot weather, cool coats which can reflect the light off dark coloured dogs can also be helpful whilst on walks. But again, try and get something that is going to be comfortable for your dog and not hamper their movement.

So, as we meander through the rather confused weather that spring can spring on us, it’s worth remembering these little things we can do to help our dogs feel more comfortable!

Let sleeping dogs lie… but never let puppy dogs cry!

17003553515_fc387e19da_b

Image pinched from here

In the wild, a puppy would stay with their mum for about 9 months. So when we take them home at 8 or 9 weeks, they really are still infants in need of a mother. Our job is to become that mother- to care for them emotionally and physically and to create an environment that allows them to grow and flourish, and most importantly, to feel safe.

This is a big commitment, requires compromise and sacrifices, and there are going to be times when it is difficult. But the benefits you will reap from making sure your puppy’s needs are met and that they grow up feeling happy and safe make it so worthwhile.

Don’t let them cry it out

For many years, the advice doled out to new puppy parents was to bring their puppy home, put them to bed that night (often in a cage in another part of the house), and then to ignore their cries. This, we were told, would avoid ‘rewarding’ their ‘attention seeking’ behaviour and lead to a puppy who could cope with being left alone.  The same advice was given to parents of human children for many years, and today many people still adhere to it, for both canine and human babies.

But guess what?

It has been shown that the effects of not responding to infants (human or canine) does the reverse of teaching independence- allowing a baby to repeatedly become distressed in this way is damaging to their ability to establish secure attachments in the long term, and is more likely to lead to clingy, demanding children, with a deep sense of insecurity which can stay with them for the rest of their lives.

In my capacity as a dog trainer, babies are of limited interest to me! But science has taught us that mammalian brains all work pretty similarly. A lot of research done on mammalian brains has been done on rats (sorry rats!), and we know from this research that there is a period in the ‘infant’ stage of life where the caregiving that an animal receives has a life-long impact on how prone they are to being anxious. Rats whose mothers were nurturing and caring in their early days (which translates to longer periods in larger mammals who develop more slowly) had the genes for controlling anxiety turned on, whereas those who had ‘low-nurturing’ mothers never had these genes turned on, and suffered from anxiety for the rest of their lives. This is something which seems to be true across the board.

We also know that when an animal becomes excessively stressed, the body’s response becomes destructive, negatively impacting the brain, emotions, the digestive system, the immune system. Excessive stress is simply not good for us.

And, we know that when a puppy cries, their mum always responds. This all makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. Crying young alert predators to the presence of vulnerable, tasty youngsters! Dogs always do a very good job of rearing puppies, so we could do a lot worse than following their example.

So what should we do?

Dogs are social sleepers- they find safety in company, and without it, struggle to get the deep sleep they need. The ideal situation is to have your puppy sleep with a member of the family. Most puppies sleep longer and sounder when they are with you, so you might find the night is not as broken as you’d expect.

If you have a carpeted room and are worried about your puppy sneaking off to the corner for a wee (or worse!) during the night, a simple solution is to block off the parts of your room that you can, and cover the rest with a waterproof bedsheet- these usually have non-slippery cotton on top and a waterproof backing.

If you don’t want your dog in your room forever, as the puppy gets older you can gradually move their bed further and further from yours. Having their bed just outside your door with a dog gate rather than a shut door can be a good interim arrangement.

If they can’t be in the bedroom, camping downstairs with them for the first while can be helpful. You can then work on gradually increasing the time they are left downstairs.

Know when they’re tired

Puppies need a lot of sleep- upwards on 20 hours a day! But dogs are polyphasic sleepers- they sleep in multiple blocks throughout the day and night.

People often worry about their puppies sleeping too much during the day, and wonder how this will affect their sleep at night. But they need so much sleep that this is highly unlikely to be the case. In fact, depriving your puppy of sleep can have the reverse effect! Puppies who are over-tired can become hyperactive and restless and find it difficult to go to sleep at night. So if they’re resting during the day, don’t worry- it might help you get a better night’s sleep.

Here are some signs that your puppy may be tired or over-tired:

  • Yawning;
  • Eyes closing whilst sitting up;
  • Red eyes (I once had a pom-chi in puppy class whose eyes used to actually get puffy when he was tired);
  • Hyper-activity;
  • Excessive nipping;
  • Restlessness or not knowing what to do with themselves;
  • Vocalisations (barking, whining)
  • Grumpiness (snappiness).

If it’s too early for you to go to bed, if everyone just sits down calmly and leaves the puppy be, they will probably lie down and go to sleep. Offering them a food-based chew can help relax them.

Early starts

Dogs are naturally crepuscular, which means their most active times of the day can be dawn or dusk (many people report their puppies having a mad half hour morning and evening, and this is the reason). Over time, they adjust to our rhythm of life, but this is something they learn over time, not immediately. Be patient if your puppy is rising at 5.30 and ready to face the day!

Letting them out for a wee, and then encouraging them back to bed with a food-based chew can gain you an extra half hour of sleep!

Alternatively, scattering some of their breakfast in the garden can serve the dual purpose of tiring them out in a calm way by engaging their brains as they sniff around for the treats, and filling their tummies! Sniffing also lowers the pulse-rate and as such is a calming activity. You might well find they’re ready for another nap after the exertion. This is also a good exercise to do in the evening before bed.

Getting ready for bed

  • Keep everything calm and quiet before bedtime so your puppy is getting into the right frame of mind to sleep. Remember that adrenaline can stay in the system for 6 hours, so keeping them calm as much of the time as possible is actually a good idea!
  • Let them out for a toilet trip before bed.
  • Don’t withhold water- puppies can become easily dehydrated and need access to water at all times. If you are concerned about toilet training, offering them a wet food can mean that they get most of their required fluids with their meals and are less likely to graze on water throughout the day and night, making it easier to predict when they need to go.
  • If your puppy is struggling to settle, a calm nose game in the evening can help them get into a calmer frame of mind. Read more here.

Get the night time routine right, and you can rest assured that you’re increasing your odds of raising a happy, stress-free puppy with a secure attachment, and hopefully getting a better night’s sleep yourself in the process!

Motivation

When I started out in dog training, one of the buzzwords was ‘motivation’. I heard how a dog has got to be motivated to work with you/for you. If they won’t do what you want, they’re not motivated enough. Motivate them more! Use better treats. Better treats not working? That’s ok, just take away their meals and hand feed them throughout the day in return for them doing what you want. In fact, in the early days, I went to hear a very well-known dog trainer speak, and he said that he simply refused to work with anyone who wouldn’t commit to this method of getting their dog to earn each mouthful of food.

Now, call me a nay-sayer if you will, but as far as I’m concerned, this idea of ‘deprive and reward’ is simply not a kind way to interact with your dog. And it’s not ‘positive’ dog training.

Eating = survival

The reason dogs are motivated by food is because they need it to survive. Anything we need in order to survive is going to be inherently valuable to us. To only fulfil that basic need conditional to their compliance with our every wish is not fair.

Just imagine having to earn every mouthful of food individually. How stressful would that be? This means the dog has to be constantly on alert, just to ensure they get this basic need met. Your relationship with your dog becomes based on the somewhat menacing premise of ‘sure, you can eat… but only if you do exactly what I say.’

What are you asking your dog to do and why?

If the only way you can convince your dog to do something is to compel them to do it (essentially by threat of starvation), why is that? I’ve outlined what I find to be the most common reasons for training problems below, and in any of these situations, just increasing the value of your rewards until the dog complies (and he probably will eventually comply – we all have a price, especially if we’re constantly hungry!) is not going to benefit the overall well-being of the dog, and could in fact, adversely impact it.

1.      Does the dog enjoy doing whatever it is you’re asking them to do?

Sadly, a lot of the training we do with dogs is for our egos or our entertainment. We feel good if we can get the dog to perform. We tend to teach tricks that indulge us, rather than life skills. If the dog enjoys what you’re teaching them to do and deems it a useful skill, it’s likely that you won’t need them to be hungry in order for them to cooperate. I don’t think my dogs have ever turned their noses up at a bit of chicken, despite regular meals being provided!

If your dog does not enjoy it, is it really necessary? Is there an alternative?

2.      Does what you’re asking them to do cause them pain or discomfort?

If what you’re asking your dog to do is causing them pain, you simply shouldn’t be asking them to do it. We can inadvertently be the cause of our dog’s pain (read more here), their conformation can make certain acts uncomfortable (I’ve come across many people who consider it a real achievement to convince a greyhound to sit, despite the fact that it is not a position most greyhounds would ever adopt naturally, as they’re simply not the right shape for it), or they could have an underlying health issue. The environment can also play a part- would you want to sit on cold wet grass in winter? Or a burning hot pavement in summer? Tiles and wooden floors can be slippery and create issues when the dog tries to move around. Compelling them to do something which is causing them pain has the potential to exacerbate any underlying health problems.

3.      Is the dog in a state of stress and unable to focus on the task at hand?

If your dog is too stressed to focus on the task at hand, your focus should be on getting them out of the stressful situation, reducing their stress and giving them coping mechanisms. This stress can be anything from being overwhelmed by the environment, being in the presence of triggers (other dogs, loud noises, bikes etc.) to chronic stress from a stressful lifestyle, not enough sleep or the wrong sorts of activities. If your dog is stressed, they are not in a position to learn anything, and the focus should be on stress reduction, not motivation.

4.      Does your dog understand what you’re asking them to do?

If they don’t understand what you’re asking, take a look at how you’re asking. Is your body language at odds with your request? Do you need to break it down into smaller steps? Is what you’re asking them to do sensible from a dog’s perspective? One example where we humans often fall down in this regard is asking a dog-reactive dog to ‘sit’ when they see another dog. Firstly, sitting when you’re in a state of agitation goes against everything your body will be telling you to do. Second of all, sitting is a calming signal, part of a dog’s communication toolkit. We’ll never understand all of the nuances of canine communication, so expecting your dog to utilise a feature of their communication on command in response to a perceived threat from another dog, is rather unfair. Just because he’s getting paid for it and therefore complying, doesn’t make it feel right.

 

So how should we manage our dog’s food?

fia eating smallFood should be a pleasure for your dog, and it should be provided reliably and predictably in a stress-free environment. Ensure your dog has enough good quality food, often enough, preferably with a bit of variety. If you plan on using food throughout the day, and your dog has weight issues, by all means put someof your dog’s allowance aside. But they should still be having a substantial meal which they can eat in peace and at their leisure.

 

For food rewards, you can always use small amounts of lean protein like chicken, which is unlikely to impact your dog’s weight and is usually a big hit. I often fry lamb’s liver and cut it up into very small pieces. Some dogs will even be quite pleased with fruit and vegetables.

Remember, if your dog is not interested in taking tasty morsels, something is probably wrong. They are probably stressed or in pain. I’d happily bet that in 90% of situations, it’s not a lack of motivation.

 

Fags and Fido- Another Reason to Quit?

As New Year’s Resolutions abound, many people are attempting to quit smoking. That’s obviously great news for them, their family and friends, but also for their dog. We don’t often consider the impact that smoking can have on our pets, but understanding the serious implications the habit can have on furry family members can serve as an extra push to kick the habit.

images-5

Passive Smoking

The detrimental effects of smoking on the smoker, as well as on their family, have been widely publicised, and it is well known that smoking, as well as passive smoking, can cause serious health problems, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and lung disease.

We also know that 85% of cigarette smoke is invisible and that toxic particles accumulate on the surfaces of our homes, including furniture and carpets as well as clinging to our clothes and hair, long after the smoking has stopped. These surface accumulations are known as third hand smoke, and are thought to be even more carcinogenic than second hand smoke. The particles are released from the surfaces they cling to and react with other indoor pollutants, creating a further toxic mix. Airing does not remove these particles, clothes and surfaces must be thoroughly cleaned to get rid of them.

And, we also know that it’s not just people who are effected by second and third hand smoke. Our pets are even more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of the by-products of smoking. This is because:

  • They can absorb the toxins clinging to carpets and floors through their paws;
  • The toxins will transfer to their coats, which they may then lick (particularly problematic in cats, who are fastidious groomers!);
  • They are lower down and closer to the carpets and furniture and the particles they will be releasing;
  • They often do not have the opportunity to remove themselves from the smoky environment.

Research into the effect of passive smoking on dogs has shown that living with a smoker leads to:

  • an increased risk of nasal and lung cancer;
  • cell damage;
  • increased weight gain after neutering;
  • an increased risk of corneal ulceration (ouch!).

Although there are limited amounts of research into the effects of passive smoking on dogs specifically, I think it is safe to assume that they will also be subject to the myriad of problems experienced by humans who are subjected to second and third hand smoke. I also can’t help but think how much more unpleasant it must be for dogs to be around cigarette smoke with their far superior sense of smell.

Nicotine

The other risk to dogs from smoking comes by way of nicotine poisoning, and ironically, this can be more common whilst owners are attempting to quit, owing to the presence of nicotine replacement patches, gums etc. in the home. The toxic level of nicotine in dogs is 0.5-1.0mg per pound (approx. 500g) of body weight. 10mg/kg of body weight can be enough to have fatal consequences. The effects of nicotine poisoning can be seen within an hour and include:

  • Vomiting;
  • Abnormal heart rate;
  • Drooling;
  • Incoordination;
  • Hallucination;
  • Tremors;
  • Weakness;
  • Collapse.

If you think your dog has ingested nicotine containing products, do contact your vet.

Mitigating the Risk

If you are a smoker, you can reduce the risk to your dog by not smoking in the house. Remember, however, that the toxic particles will still be present on your clothes and hair, so this does not eliminate the risk to your pet.

If you are quitting, the great news is that your pet will be living in a much less toxic environment soon. In the meantime, be sure to keep all nicotine containing items out of your dog’s reach, including cigarette butts, which puppies particularly will often pick up to investigate, and which contain high levels of nasty toxins.

Christmas Puppies

dogxmas

When I was working in London, January through to March was always one of my busiest times for puppy classes. These first few months of the year nearly always saw me more than double the number of classes I ran to cope with demand.

The reason? Christmas puppies!

Every year, the dog world appeals to people not to buy puppies for Christmas. And we’re not being curmudgeonly, I swear! We’ve just heard too many heart-breaking stories about the fate of Christmas puppies, and the older dogs who are often abandoned to make space for a newer, cuter replacement. Yet the demand for puppy classes in the New Year shows that Christmas is still a really popular time to buy puppies.

So, what sort of thing should you consider if you are thinking about a Christmas puppy?

Where will your puppy come from?

As a dog trainer, I know about the Christmas puppy rush. Guess who else knows? Puppy farmers. They try to cash in on the demand, and if people are in a rush to buy a puppy in time for Christmas, the risks of them falling foul of an unscrupulous puppy farmer are higher. There are lots of really good guides out there to avoiding puppies from puppy farms (like this one). Ending up with a puppy from a puppy farm increases demand for puppies bred in deplorable conditions and sentences female dogs to a lifetime of having litter after litter, each one taken away from them. Additionally, your chances of having a sickly puppy or one with behavioural problems rises exponentially. You can read more about puppy farming here.

Who’ll do all of the hard work?

Puppies take a lot of work. Who’s going to spend the Christmas period taking puppy out every 30-60 minutes, cleaning up the accidents, making 4 meals a day for puppy, picking things up off the floor that your puppy will chew, and comforting children who don’t understand why the puppy is nipping them or chewing the new toys that Santa brought them? It’s not many people’s idea of a perfect Christmas!

Puppies are not puppies for long!

Christmas puppies, as with all puppies, don’t waste much time growing up. By 6-8 months of age (just 4 months after you bring your puppy home), you’ll have a dog who has the size and appearance of an adult dog, and who acts like an adolescent. According to figures from the RSPCA over 600 pets were abandoned over the festive period in 2015. But the real peak in animal neglect occurred 6 months later. By then the Christmas puppies had become summer adolescents. Adolescent dogs can be really hard work. But many Christmas puppies don’t even make it to the summer- the reality of having a peeing, pooing, barking, nipping puppy often hits home a lot sooner, and shelters always report an increase in puppies being handed in the weeks following the festive period.

Are you prepared for a significant ongoing financial commitment?

Who else finds it depressing looking at their bank account figures in January? Now imagine you’ll have to shell out for vaccines (I haven’t priced these but I’m guessing you’ll be paying E80-E100 each vaccine visit), puppy classes (E100-E150), dog food, leads, harnesses. Does everyone in the household go to school or work? Add dog walkers or daycare arrangements to that too. I read recently that over an average lifespan of 15 years, a dog will cost you £10,000-£20,000.

It’s a gift with a lot of responsibility attached!

Christmas puppies are usually gifts. Does the recipient definitely want a puppy? Are they prepared for all of the responsibilities that come with a puppy? I had a client once whose husband had surprised her with a puppy. They also had an 18 month child and the husband worked away. She needed the added responsibility of a puppy like a hole in the head!

And please, please don’t buy puppies for children. Children cannot be expected to be responsible for another living being. It’s not fair on the child, and it’s not fair on the dog. An adult in the house needs to be willing to take responsibility for the dog (for the next 12-15 years) long after the kids may have lost interest of moved out. Of course it’s fine if the children want to help out in a supervised capacity. You can read more on dogs and children here.

Is it really the best time?

Christmas is chaotic for most of us. Do you know what a baby dog, who’s just been taken away from his mother and siblings and placed in a new and potentially frightening environment definitely doesn’t need in their first couple of weeks??? The excitement of Christmas. They do not need to have a multitude of (perhaps tipsy) visitors cooing over them and handling them. They do not need new owners who have to keep leaving the house for their next festive engagement. They do not need excitable children running around. Rather, they need calmness, stability and time (and up to 20 hours sleep a day) to slowly get used to their new life in a way they can cope with.

What about a Christmas rescue dog?

Thinking of adopting an older dog instead? Always commendable to choose a dog in need, but unless you’re a Christmas recluse, I’d still recommend holding out until a calmer time. As with puppies, settling into a new home can be difficult for a rescue dog. Rescue dogs are often really exhausted from the stress they’ve had to deal with, and some need weeks of just sleeping. They need their new owners to have time to just be with them. As with puppies, they need calmness and stability and time! Expecting them to deal with the excitement of Christmas as soon as they arrive is a big ask.

So if you really want a puppy, why not clear some time in your calendar during spring (as an added bonus, spring/summer puppies are often easier to toilet train than winter ones as they tend to find going out in the warmer weather less objectionable), take your time to find a reputable breeder and to research the breed of dog that will be most suited to your lifestyle. If you’re thinking of getting the dog for someone else, why not tell them of your intentions, and get them this wonderful DVD about caring for a puppy as a stocking filler, and enjoy Christmas without the added worry of a new furry arrival!

 

Creating an Enriched Environment for your Dog

When I was doing my Education with Turid, enriched environments were one of the first things we learned about. An enriched environment is basically an area that’s been set up to stimulate the dog’s senses- things to look at, sniff, touch, investigate, climb on, etc. The dog should be left to interact with the enriched environment without any input from the humans and be free to walk away when they want to.

I’ll admit, I was sceptical… it sounded almost too easy to be true. Would putting out random stuff for a dog to investigate really make a difference to their behaviour? Well, 18 months later, at the end of our course, we all had to present a project. Some of my fellow students had been working in shelters, and for their projects had put Turid’s methods into practice in the shelters, including the enriched environment, and recorded their findings. A lot of the dogs these people were working with had real issues- some were reactive to other dogs, some were reactive to people, some were just incredibly stressed or shut down. The changes they reported back were incredible. The dogs became calmer, and more focused and their behaviour improved.

 

Shelter dog Sheena

A shelter dog (courtesy of Caroline Lewis) unwinding in an enriched environment.

So if I wasn’t convinced before, I certainly was then. Often, we’re reluctant to try the more simple things, especially for complex problems. We think ‘that won’t work for my dog’, and we don’t try, or we give up too soon. But if enriched environments can help shelter dogs, often some of the most stressed and ‘difficult’ dogs in our society, there’s no reason not to try them with our own dogs.

 

When to use an enriched environment

Dogs are naturally curious creatures, so really an enriched environment is a great idea for any dog. Putting out new things will pique their curiosity, and as they amble around investigating they’ll be using their brains and developing confidence. And of course, it’s interesting, in the same way as browsing your favourite shop or discovering a new place and seeing new things is for us.

Bad weather day? Dog on restricted exercise after an injury? It’s a great way to alleviate boredom! You don’t need to go anywhere, you just need to find new things to put in the same place.

Enriched environments are also particularly useful with dogs who are scared or stressed. It’s a great way of providing mental stimulation without subjecting them to walks or places they might find stressful or scary. Also, because there’s no human input once the environment has been created, the dogs’ confidence can grow. They’re making decisions and thinking for themselves. They have choice, an essential component for overcoming fear. They’re getting practice at encountering strange or new objects in a safe space, which they can leave at any time.

With dogs who are scared or stressed, they may initially have very little interest in investigating. They may constantly look to their owner for reassurance. They may find the enriched environment overwhelming and leave very quickly. That’s absolutely fine. Just try again a few days later. And then a few days later. You can time your dog to see if they begin to get more confident/more interested/more relaxed.

For dogs who are over-excited or lacking focus, environmental enrichment can teach them to slow down and begin to engage with their environment. Once they slow down, they can begin to think before they act. They’ll be using their noses, and sniffing slows the heart rate, calming them down (read more about sniffing here). As with fearful or stressed dogs, it may take some time before they’re relaxed enough to really engage with things. That’s fine too, stick with it!

 

Tips for creating an enriched environment

  • Don’t use anything that could injure your dog;
  • Don’t use anything that you wouldn’t want your dog to pee on or destroy (they don’t tend to, but if you suddenly have to leap up and try to get something from your dog you’ll be undermining the object of the exercise);
  • Your enriched environment can be inside or outside;
  • Your dog should be off-lead and free to move towards/away from things as they wish;
  • Change things up each time you create an enriched environment. Things will lose appeal once they’ve been thoroughly investigated. Have lots of things to rotate, introduce new things when you can, or lend your items to friends so they come back smelling different;
  • Don’t distract your dog. Don’t praise them, don’t stroke them, don’t call them away, just leave them to it;
  • Let them leave once they’re ready to- no pressure, no targets. They may wander away and come back, or they may leave and lie down. Just let your dog lead
  • All that investigating is more work than you’d imagine- when your dog is finished with the enriched environment, they’ll probably be very tired. Make sure they have time to rest!

 

Things to include

There’s no recipe for an enriched environment. Just use your imagination! Kids can be really good at coming up with novel ideas. Here are just a few suggestions to start you off:

 

Things that smell interesting Things that feel interesting Things that look interesting Things that move/make noises
  •  Laundry
  •  Other dogs’ toys/bedding
  • Things that smell of other animals- sheep’s wool, animal skins, horse’s brushes. I once got some used hamster bedding from the local petshop!
  •  Safe plants and herbs
  • Sticks from the park
  •  Hay bales

 

  • Tarpaulin
  •  Sandpit
  •  Soft furnishings
  • Leaves in autumn
  •  Dried seaweed
  •  Hay

 

  • Traffic cones
  • Teddy bears
  • Black sack with clothes or other items in
  • Household items- vacuum cleaner, drying rack
  • Cans/tins suspended from strings
  • Toy buggies or carts
  • Wind chimes

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a video of Seren, a 4 year old Duck Tolling Retriever, exploring an enriched environment (with thanks to Kirsty Grant for the video and Seren’s human, C. Holborrow!).

Have you any good ideas for things to include in an enriched environment?? Do leave a comment if you have!

 

 

The Gift of a Growl

 

‘He growled at me the other day!’

This is something I hear commonly from clients. It is always uttered with a tone of shocked and offended indignance which would lead you to believe

growl

Ok, so it mightn’t look pretty, but growling is a wonderful warning system, and a really clear piece of communication which should never be punished.

that their dog had done something truly awful.But growling is a normal, natural, functional part of the dog’s vocabulary, and one we misunderstand terribly. Almost invariably, when people tell me that their dog has growled at them, they see the growl as a threat. An indication that the dog wishes to harm them. The irony is that a growl is exactly the reverse of this! Dogs growl to avoid conflict.

Dogs don’t speak the way we do, but that’s not to say they don’t have a complex system of communication. Their communication comprises body language, sounds, and odour.

Their range of sounds includes whining, whimpering, barking, howling, ‘chatting’, yelping, and of course, growling. As a highly social species, one of the primary purposes of communication for a dog is to avoid conflict. Growling is no exception. A growl says ‘I don’t want to fight, but I do want you to know I’m not comfortable with this’.

A growl rarely comes out of nowhere. If a dog is feeling uncomfortable with a situation, you can nearly always spot it in their body language first- they freeze, they look away, they show the whites of their eyes. They might lick their lips or yawn. However, we humans often miss these signals, and when we do, the dog is forced to escalate their behaviour, and a lot of the time, nobody hears the dog until they do growl.

And a growl is a wonderful gift. The growl itself is not an act of aggression, it is the only way the dog can make itself heard when all of his other signals have been ignored. If you punish a growl, you are disabling a really useful warning system. If a dog’s body language is ignored, and his voice is punished, he’s only left with one way of communicating- his teeth.

So, if your dog growls at you:

  1. Stop what you were doing and give the dog space;
  2. If you really need your dog to do something, try and think of a less confrontational way of asking him to do it. For instance, if he’s eating something he shouldn’t, he may be happy to leave it if you offer him the opportunity to do a treat search elsewhere;
  3. Come up with a plan for dealing with similar situations in the future. If your dog growled because you tried to move him from the couch, perhaps you could do some work around training an ‘off’ for future use. If the issue was food he shouldn’t eat, perhaps you can teach a ‘leave’;
  4. Question your own motivation. Often people are moving a dog or acting in a threatening way because they’ve been told they need to show their dog who’s boss. This sort of thinking is based on outdated theories and will only serve to damage your relationship with your dog and lead to more serious problems down the line. Don’t take things from your dog or make him move for the sake of proving you can.
  5. Most importantly, don’t punish your dog in any way. You can read more on the pitfalls of punishment here.

Don’t silence your dog. Don’t lose the gift of a growl.