While trolling around for blog ideas, I ran across this article from Dogster.com: Why is your dog eating grass? Interestingly, the author, Melvin Pena, doesn’t really give a reason why they eat grass, he just debunks common ideas about why they eat it. I have my own theory as to why dogs eat herbaceous borders, but first let’s review the myths surrounding grass consumption.
- Dogs eat grass because they have an upset tummy and grass helps them to vomit or poop. “Science offers no evidence linking eating grass with vomiting. It has shown that dogs, already nauseated before grazing, were more likely to throw up after. The same goes for the supposed laxative properties of grass.” A dog’s digestive tract is not designed to process grass, so grass actually stays in the GI tract longer than a dog’s regular diet, thus not really acting as a laxative.
- Dogs eat grass as a nutritional supplement. If you are feeding a quality food, it’s unlikely that your dog needs supplemental nutrition, but even if it did, since a dog cannot easily digest grass, it probably is not seeking it out as a vitamin supplement.* Besides, dogs are also known to eat “known to eat underwear, rubber duckies and loose change.” Last I knew, my dog was not getting vital nutrients from my grandkids bath toys! Moreover, according to an article in Psychology Today, by Dr. Stanley Coren, “Dogs that had their diet regularly supplemented by plant matter (vegetables or fruit) were no less likely to eat grass which seems to kill the idea that dogs are eating grass to make up for the absence of vegetable matter in their normal food intake.”
- Dogs eat grass because their ancestors did. This was a new theory for me! I do not recall reading anywhere that ancient wolves ate grass. But, wolves do eat grass eating animals such as deer. When they eat the prey, they generally eat all of it, including the stomach. So, if there is grass in the stomach of a wolf (ancient or modern), there’s a good chance it’s from a secondary source.
Many dogs eat grass spring, summer, and fall. Some dogs eat grass more in the spring, when it’s tender and sweeter. My own dogs don’t eat the lawn, but prefer my ornamental grasses and will graze on weeds that grow along the paths we hike. My theory as to why they become herbaceous connoisseurs is much simpler than the convoluted reasons above (and follows Aristotle’s Principle of Parsimony** that one should look for the explanation with the fewest assumptions)]. I happy to say that Dr. Coren agrees: Dogs eat grass because it tastes good. And, of course, there’s no accounting for taste! Bone appetite!
* If you are concerned that your dog needs additional nutrition, or worry that a health concern such as dry skin, itchy paws, or ear infections may be food related, please speak with your vet. And be sure to look at this monthly checklist so you can catch heath problems earlier rather than later.
**Also know as Ockham’s Razor.
Pinch or prong collars, choke chains, and shock collars are not tools that I use or advocate to train your dog.* But, what about electronic fences to keep your dog in the yard? Aren’t those humane, easy to use, and give your dog the freedom he desires to romp and play safely in the yard? Maybe, maybe not…
Let me say at the onset that I do understand why owners put in electronic containment systems. They are less expensive than regular fencing, promise to keep your dog in the yard and safe, and some neighborhoods will not allow regular fencing. If you live on a busy road, you may feel an even stronger need to keep your dog in the yard. I get it. But, the problem with electric fences is that there are unintended consequences that can affect the health and well being of your best friend.
Eileen Anderson is a dog trainer and author. She has a blog called eileenanddogs, where she has written extensively about electronic collars and fences, including this one: Electronic Pet Fences: What you need to know. In this particular blog, she details some of the risks and consequences owners should be aware of when considering this form of containment.**
The first thing she discusses is the “warm and fuzzy language” that manufacturers tend to use to describe the system and how it works. She quotes this from one of the manuals:
[The] wireless fence pet containment system is a revolutionary concept that provides the safest, simplest form of pet containment ever. Plug in the transmitter somewhere inconspicuous in your home. The transmitter emits a 17.5 kHz radio signal around your home. Your pet wears a lightweight receiver collar that “listens” for the signal. While the collar is receiving the signal your dog is free to run and play in your yard. When he approaches the boundary of the signal area he receives a warning beep. If your dog does not return he receives a static correction which is startling but not harmful. With a little simple training your dog will quickly learn his boundaries.
Hey, you might say, this sounds great and how harmful can a small “static” correction be? Well, here is the same passage without the euphemisms and “using complete descriptions of the processes involved” :
[The] electronic fence system uses a shock collar connected to a radio transmitter with the goal of keeping your dog inside a chosen area. Electric shock has been used in laboratory experiments for decades for behavioral studies to put animals in a state of stress or fear and is also linked to increased aggression. Plug in the transmitter in your house. The transmitter emits a 17.5 kHz radio signal. Your pet wears a shock collar that will be triggered by a change in the signal. The collar must be fastened tightly on the dog’s neck so that the probes will poke through the dog’s fur and press firmly into his skin. Even when not generating a shock, the collar is likely to be quite uncomfortable. While the collar is receiving the standard signal your dog is safe from shock. When he approaches the boundary of the signal area he receives a warning beep. If your dog does not return, or goes through the boundary, he receives a shock to his neck that can range from a tingle to very painful, depending on the setting you choose.
That is not quite as innocuous as the manufacturer wants you to believe. Moreover, it is important to understand exactly what a shock is and how it is likely perceived by your dog. Shocks are sudden, painful, likely scary, and probably unlike anything your dog has ever experienced. They have been the industry standard in psychology studies as the means to produce fear and pain in an animal and put it under stress. The shocks received from an electronic fence collar may also be a factor in increasing aggression in dogs. (See: Can Aggression in Dogs Be Elicited Through the Use of Electronic Pet Containment Systems? by Richard Polsky.) In the conclusion to this article in which he looks closely at 5 individual cases of aggression towards humans from dogs being contained by electronic systems, Mr. Polsky states:
…manufacturers need to acknowledge the ricks involved and make consumers aware that the systems are not foolproof and that some dogs could attack a person as a result of receiving electric shock.
Even if your dog does not become aggressive towards people, there is no guarantee that your dog is learning what you think he is! He may be learning that the shock is associated, not with the boundary of the yard, but with whatever was holding his attention when he was shocked. For example, if your dog was trying to greet another dog when he received a shock, he might well associate the presence of dogs with shocks. As a result Fido is now leary of dogs, barks more when they approach, and/or becomes fearful or aggressive towards them as they now signify pain and discomfort. Or alternatively, if you have multiple dogs on the system, they might associate their yard mate with the shock and become aggressive towards one another. Or your children, the mailman, UPS person, meter reader, etc., may be the object of your dog’s aversion if he has paired their presence with pain and distress.
Another concern is that the system may keep your dog on your property, but it does nothing to protect your dog from anything coming into the yard, including other dogs, kids, balls, or coyotes. As Ms. Anderson states, “The electronic fence offers your dog zero protection over being teased, harassed, or stolen by humans, attacked by other animals, or ingesting or interacting with anything inappropriate that someone tosses into your yard.”
Once more, what happens if a distraction (think squirrel) is so great that your dog blasts through the electronic fence? It is unlikely that he will go back through the fence, or that he will sit quietly by the side of it, waiting patiently for your return. What if he panics and keeps running? What if someone wants to help and tries to drag your dog back through the shock? Your dog has no way to come home and may well protest being exposed to another shock. What if your dog is hit by a car when he bolts or panics?
Ms. Anderson describes other equally disquieting, but not uncommon, scenarios associated with electronic fences, such as malfunctioning collars, your liability, and will your dog really have the freedom of movement as promised, or will he be too afraid of being shocked to even move around the yard? Her article is well worth a read, especially if you are considering this sort of containment system. Be aware not only of the promises, but the risks and unintended consequences of using force and pain to keep your dog “safely” at home.
*See: Choke, Prong, and Shock Collars Can Irreversibly Damage Your Dog, by Dr. Peter Tobias, DVM
**Other articles detailing the problems with shock collars and electronic containment systems:
The Problem with Shock, by Angelica Skeinker, Dog Sport Magazine
The Unintended Consequences of Shock Collars, Green Acres Kennel
Electronic training collars present welfare risk to pet dogs, University of Lincoln, Science Daily
Here is my blog on the effects of trauma and punishment on your dog: Trauma, trust, and your dog.
And on a more positive note: Here is an article about boundary training that may be of interest to those who do not want to use an electronic system but need to keep the dog in the yard: How to Clicker Train Your Dog to Stay in the Yard.
I have posted blogs on various toys, books, foods, and management and training aids that I like, but I decided that this week I would write about things I have encountered lately, or that I have re-discovered, that I would recommend.
I have mentioned The Education of Will, by Patricia McConnell previously, but I wanted to recommend it to anyone who has experienced trauma, or has a dog who was traumatized. Her compelling memoir sheds realistic light on how pervasive trauma can be and how challenging it is to overcome. But, mostly it is a tale of hope and compassion and well worth the read.
The book I am currently reading is The Dawn of the Dog, The Genesis of a Natural Species, by Janice Koler-Matznick. It is a well researched look at the origin of dogs. She takes on the status quo ideas of domestication and challenges them with reasons why dogs are not just sub-species of wolves. I have not finished the book, but I am impressed by her extensive research and, I am becoming increasingly convinced that man did not create dog, but, as one reviewer put it: “dog existed as a unique, naturally evolved species distinct from today’s wolves long before any association with humans.”* For anyone curious about the origin of dog, and who wants an eminently readable book, I highly recommend it.
Dean Koonz is a prolific author and often includes dogs in his books. I found an old copy of Dragon Tears and really enjoyed the role of the golden retriever mix in this book. He has delightful insight into the mind of dogs and how they see/smell and interpret the world. He also wrote an endearing (tissue alert!) book about his dog Trixie called A Big Little Life that I loved and find myself reflecting on years after I read it.
For those interested in the world of dog shows, I found tucked in the back of one of my shelves, Dog Eat Dog, by Jane and Michael Stern. Published in 1997, it is a bit dated, but the essence of dog shows and what it takes to have a champion remains true. It’s a quick read and has a good index of dog show terms. For a really entertaining look at the world of dog shows, nothing beats Best in Show, directed by Christopher Guest and starring a delightful potpourri of Hollywood actors.
Uncommon Goods has a wonderful line of “Bad Dog” products. My favorites are the tumblers, especially the Bad Dog Tumblers, and the Bad Dog Best in Show Tumblers. They also have free, downloadable Bad Dog Birthday cards. The images are a fun and are an all too real portrayal of our canine companions at their best…or worse!
The current treat of choice for my dogs is lamb lung. High in protein, low in fat, they are easy to break into small pieces and are a great addition to any Kong! I buy them in the 12-oz, headed-out-on-the-Oregon-trail size, though they are also available in a more reasonable 5-oz size. They are not wet or gooey (I think they are dehydrated), but they since they break into small pieces they are great for training treats and I have yet to find a dog that doesn’t adore them.
And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our podcast, Your Family Dog, featuring Colleen Pelar and me talking about all things canine. Our goal is to help families love living with dogs. Colleen’s gentle humor, compassion, and deep knowledge of dogs makes every episode a learning experience for me, and I hope for you as well. We cover a broad range of topics, from behavior problems, to dog sports, caring for your elderly dog, making happy dogs happier, managing vet visits, literary dogs, and so much more! With over 40 episodes, there is a topic of interest for every dog lover. Find us on iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher. If you like us, please leave us a review. And, if you have a question or comment, please let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call and leave a message at 614-349-1661.
*Dr. Michael Fox, from the back cover of the book.
Yesterday marked a year since my most beloved dog, Mr. Bingley, passed away. He had soft tissue histiocytic sarcoma, a nasty, aggressive cancer unfortunately associated with Flat-coated Retrievers, and the time had come for me to make sure he didn’t suffer.* He had been officially diagnosed 9 months earlier and had responded well to treatment, but this cancer is relentless. When the chemo no longer worked, I was determined to make the most of his time left with me. For three months we played, swam, tossed a
million tennis balls, and had a wonderful photo session with Gary Chisolm. Despite his illness, Bingley seemed invincible.
But finally, over the course of about 5 days, Bing began slowing down and detaching from the world. He had raging fevers for three nights. When he stopped eating completely and would take just a small amount of water (this was a dog who use to put his entire head into the water bowl to drink with great gusto), I knew the time was imminent. Our wonderful oncology vet, Dr. Erin Malone, gently confirmed that he just wasn’t the same dog they all remembered and his cancer was getting the best of him. They prepped him and then allowed me to spend some time with him outside. He laid down on the cool concrete and rested his head in my hand for the last time. I felt as if my living heart was being ripped from my chest.
Now, I am fully aware that this was my dog, and not my child or my husband, but there is something unique about the human-dog bond that elevates it to something more than pet ownership. Bingley was my best buddy, my faithful, fun, and loving companion for over 10 years. I lost more than my dog on July 6, 2016, I lost a best friend, and the sting of that loss is pervasive. I still reach for the soft fur on his ears, listen for his breathing next to my bed, wait for the feel of a wet tennis ball dropped by my feet (or next to my head to wake me up…), and search for the soft and sweet look on his face that said, “All is well Mom. Let’s go play.”
I have Zuzu now, and I adore her. She is sweet, earnest, and special. She has qualities that Bingley didn’t have (such as not barking at the door), and I wouldn’t trade her for anything. This eases my grief for Bingley, but it doesn’t repair it, nor does she replace him. My husband told me recently of a study of people who remarried and had a family after the death of a spouse. Though happy in their new lives, most said there wasn’t a day that went by that they didn’t think about and intensely miss their first spouse. That is not to say that they weren’t happy, it’s just that when you lose someone that significant, there is a lasting residual effect. For anyone who has loved and lost a dog, you know there is no reason that this cannot apply, in a similar way, to your canine buddy. Every dog can hold a special place in your heart, but if you are lucky, there will be a dog that is your champion, your all-star, your unbeatable best friend who not only loves you unconditionally, but lights up your world like a lighthouse on a stormy night, pointing you towards a safe harbor and a warm place to rest your heart.
*If you have to consider euthanasia for your pet, it might be helpful for you to listen to Colleen Pelar’s and my podcast with Dr. Alicia Karas: Knowing When It’s Time to Say Goodbye
The best thing about knowing a variety of trainers and reading blogs and posts by other dog people, is that it gives me ideas and sources for my blog, usually much better ideas than I can dream up!
This week, The Whole Dog Journal (WDJ), my bible for all things canine, blogged about dental care for your dog and why keeping his teeth clean and tartar free is important for Fido’s overall health. Dental care is not just about preventing bad breath.* Like humans, dogs can develop gingivitis (swollen, red, inflamed gums due to infection) that can lead to more severe health issues as the infection moves into the bones and ligaments surrounding the teeth. Moreover:
Because of the rich blood supply to the mouth, the infection can also spread systemically, making your dog quite ill and/or affecting his heart, kidneys, and liver. This chronic condition can prematurely age your dog. (WDJ)
Yikes! Considering how short our dogs’ lives are, we certainly do not want to risk anything that potentially decreases their life spans.** So, here are some things you can do to keep your dog’s teeth healthy:
- Regularly check your dog’s teeth for signs of tarter build up. “Tartar builds up on the teeth, forming a concrete-like crust on the teeth at the gum line. It also forms under the gums, which helps [the] bacteria get under the gums and proliferate.” (WDJ) If your dog’s teeth are discolored and show signs of plaque build-up, you will need to schedule a professional cleaning with your vet. Unfortunately this is the only way to get rid of the tartar and will require that your dog be under full sedation.
- Brush your dog’s teeth. Once your dog’s teeth are pearly white again, you can maintain them with regular (i.e.: daily) brushing. Use a soft brush and canine toothpaste as human toothpaste containing fluoride is toxic to dogs. Start slowly, allowing the dog to sniff and lick at the toothbrush, and become comfortable with the process. Here is a video from ClickerTraining.com with instructions for teaching your dog to accept having his teeth brushed.
- Raw marrow bones. This is a bit controversial as some dogs might chip or break a tooth on a marrow bone, but my experience has been that it does help to keep my dog’s teeth cleaner and they have not had any problems with chipped or broken teeth. I do, however, have a couple of rules for bones:
a) Supervise your dog chewing on the bone and if it gets too small, trade your dog for something else, lest she choke on it and;
b) Be careful about the diameter of the opening of the marrow bone. Marrow bones are cut from the leg bones of cows and if you get one that has the flanged opening at the top of the bone (i.e.: the socket part of a ball and socket joint) the opening may be large enough for your dog to get his lower jaw through it and get stuck! This happened to my dog Bingley and it required a trip to MedVet to have it removed.*** In the photo with the bones, the one at the bottom has a wide opening on one side and is the type of bone which attached itself to Bingers (external diameter of 3 1/2″). The one on the top is narrower in both internal and external diameter (2″ external diameter) and is also longer, which helps to prevent it from slipping over the jaw. This is the type of bone my dogs now get, and so far, it has not produced deleterious results.
Your dog only has one set of teeth, and proper care of them will help to keep him happy and healthy longer! And, look on the bright side, at least you don’t have to floss them!
*Bad breath may be an indication of more severe health problems such as kidney disease, diabetes, or injested toxins. If your dog has chronic bad breath, or suddenly develops bad breath, please see your vet.
***MedVet assured me that they see this at least once a week. Most dogs are taken in the back, have their jaws lubricated and the bone slides right off. Bingley, not being most dogs, required sedation as well as lubrication. Luckily they did not have to pull out the Stryker oscillating saw to remove it, but that was the next step.
Reisner Veterinary Services posted this article from Silent Conversations, a website dedicated to “Insights into Canine Communication,” about sniffing the ground and what it might indicate about doggie discourse.
Although I have paid attention to sniffing in dogs, I have been watching it more closely lately as I recently read The Education of Will, by Dr Patricia McConnell. At one point she talks about noticing the constancy and intensity of Will’s sniffing and how it concerned her in such a young dog. So, I was delighted to see the article from Silent Conversations which explained and reinforced my own observations about something that all dogs do, but may do differently at different times. Knowing when your dog is just checking the pee-mail and when he is sniffing as a way to diffuse a potentially tense situation can help you keep Fido relaxed and manageable.
Martha Knowes, the author of the blog says this by way of introduction:
Sniffing can be used as a calming signal when an interaction is too intense. One dog may start to walk away, slowly sniffing the ground; the other dog may mirror him by also sniffing the ground. This is a good way to defuse an interaction.
Sniffing can be used as negotiation as two dogs approach each other; a deliberate slower approach is polite when greeting. Sniffing the ground is commonly used as part of the body language signals offered at the beginning stages of an approach.
In other contexts, sniffing could also be interpreted as displacement behaviour or a stress response. A dog may feel conflicted about something he sees ahead of him; he may slow down and stop to sniff the environment. Sniffing may help displace the anxiety, and it gives the opportunity to assess things further from a safe distance by stalling the approach.
She continues by giving several examples of where you might see unusual sniffing and clearly describes not only the situation, but the body language that might accompany the sniffing. I really appreciated the use of common scenarios as well as the straight-forward, precise language used to describe canine body language. Even without accompanying pictures, I could clearly envision the dog she was describing.**
Ms. Knowles also adds a good section on what she means by stress. The paragraph is worth repeating in its entirety:
When I mention stress, this does not necessarily imply negative emotion. I mean stress in the physiological sense. So certain body language signals can mean the dog is feeling some sort of emotional discourse. This discourse could range from positive to negative emotion. Both excitement and fear could have similar effects on the body, with various hormones being released and activating the sympathetic nervous system. The dog may be feeling uncomfortable/fearful or it could also be excited about something. When analyzing stress in body language, it is worth noting the frequency and intensity of the various body language signals.
The last part of the article is a good reminder that when you are looking at body language it is important to describe what you see the animal doing, the immediate surroundings, and if there is anything that has changed in the environment (did something make a noise, is there a stranger dog approaching, or a person jogging?), rather than immediately interpreting the meaning of the behavior. For example, if you see a dog stop, close his mouth, look away, lower his tail, and squint his eyes, it could be that he saw a dog that he didn’t know, or a car backfired, or there was a strange smell. He might be slowing his approach to a strange dog, startled by a sound, or repelled by the smell. These are descriptions of the behavior and not emotional interpretations of the dog’s inner workings.
In Ms Knowles words:
To offer an unbiased interpretation of the body language, observe and take note of the situation, taking into account the dog’s whole body, the body language signals, and environment first before offering an interpretation. List all the body language you see in the order that it occurs; try to be as descriptive as possible without adding any emotional language. For instance, saying a dog looks happy is not descriptive and would be seen as an interpretation rather than an observation.
The more you know about your dog and her individual signals, including the more subtle ones such as sniffing, the better you will be able to protect and serve your best dog friend.
**Note: she does include links to other articles which describe the dog’s perspective on things, or elucidate a particular aspect of canine body language, such as the head turn. All of her links are worth reading.
In doing some research for this week’s blog, I found this video on Animal Cognition which I find to be fascinating. Here is the original video on youtube:
Here is what Animal Cognition had to say about this video:
A dog successfully catches a fish by using pieces of bread as bait. The dog seems to understand that the best strategy for catching a fish is keeping his mouth close to the floating bread. Even when he sees a fish jump near his hind end, he doesn’t change his position.
Using bait to catch prey is generally considered a form of “proto-tool” use. This is different from “true” tool-use in that the tool (the bait) is not actually held or manipulated while the animal is using it. Other animals have been spotted using bait to catch fish, including herons and crows.
I love the idea that dogs have the ability to figure out that bread will help to achieve a goal, and what it implies about their cognition. I think we have only just begun to understand the power of the mind and what animals are capable of learning and planning. After all, who would have thought that you could teach a goldfish to swim through a hoop or play basketball?
The octopus is an invertebrate classified along with mollusks, such as clams and oysters who don’t have brains. How anything as primitive as an invertebrate could have any level of intelligence was the standard attitude for many years. But, the humble octopus has surprised us with it’s ability to use tools, play, and respond to human interaction with affection and dislike! Clearly the intellectual ability, and consciousness of invertebrates needs to be examined more closely! Here are a couple octopi videos:
First, the octopus uses a shell to hide from a crab, then dashes out to get it (without consciousness, how could an invertebrate figure out this hunting strategy of deception and surprise?):
And here is an octopus solving a Rubik’s cube. Lord knows I can’t do this!**
Sea otters use rocks as tools to dislodge Abalone from rocks and to break them open, but here is a wonderfully clever adaptation by a sea otter to protect her baby.
Clearly there are amazing untapped abilities in a wide variety of animals. How we view the fellow creatures who share our lives and planet may need to be reassessed as we discover more evidence of creative problem solving and consciousness. If invertebrates can solve Rubik cubes, then, I’m thinking we need to get octopi more involved in solving some of our social/economic problems! After all, how many politicians do you know who can do a Rubik’s cube, or even catch a fish with a piece of bread…?
** For a wonderful book on Octopi, see The Soul of an Octopus, A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. by Sy Montgomery. I loved it!
Blog Posts by Category
- Training or “Why, Why, WHY?”
- Behavior or “What the heck?”
- Informational or Doggie Demographics
- Care and management or living together in harmony
- Philosophy of training or “Why be positive?”
- Toy Box or stuff that doesn’t fit neatly elsewhere
- Some new favorites, canine-wise. December 11, 2018
- Not every person wants to meet your dog! November 28, 2018
- Take your medicine…all of it! November 14, 2018
- Is all stress bad? October 31, 2018
- Supervising your child and dog requires more than being in the same room! October 17, 2018