Wednesday, July 29, 2015

“A dog’s life” isn’t as easy as you think

It’s been a demanding day at work. As you walk into your house, you dream of relaxing in a comfortable chair, a nice glass of wine in hand. You sigh as your dog awakens from her slumber and trots over to greet you. What a lucky girl! It’s easy to be a little jealous of her life, which is seemingly free of stress and rife with fun and relaxation.

But many dogs live with plenty of angst, and unfortunately, it’s often of our making. Canine behaviors that might seem normal to many dog owners are actually signs of tension, uneasiness, and even fright. The needy dog that follows you from room to room and bugs you for attention is a stressed-out pooch, and that might also be true for the one who tears up your house when you leave. Submissive urination, pacing, panting, not sleeping well, averting her gaze from you, furrowing her brow:  All are signs that your four-legged buddy needs to chill out.

We humans need to be a bit smarter about how we behave around our dogs. After all, we expect good behavior from them; don’t they deserve the same from us? To that end, I’ve compiled some suggestions for how we should comport ourselves around our canine companions:
  • Let sleeping dogs lie; they don’t like being touched and awakened any more than you do.  If you must rouse them, say their name quietly, or tap your foot on the floor and allow the vibration to do the job.
  • How do you like it when people touch you or grab food from your plate while you’re dining?  Let your dog eat in peace. The exceptions are training exercises in which you positively interact with your dog while she’s eating to discourage what’s called “resource guarding.”
  • If you’re angry with your dog, don’t yell at her or lean toward her while shaking your fist or pointing your finger.  It might seem benign to you, but this might be what she sees:

  • Don’t punish your dog for things that are your fault. If you leave a sandwich near the edge of the table and walk away, you can’t expect her to resist such a great temptation.
  • Here are the words from my favorite Far Side cartoon: 
“What we say to our dogs:  Okay, Ginger!  I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage!  Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else! What they hear:  blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah…”You get the idea: Dogs don’t speak human. They understand only the limited number of words you’ve taught them. To communicate, use words they understand and effective body language. Dogs get nervous when they have to try to guess what you want.
  • Don’t constantly yank on the leash while walking your dog. Teach her to appreciate a loose leash. And it’s not realistic to expect her to not want to run ahead, sniff, and explore her environment during a walk, but there are rules.
  • Don’t stare at your dog (and especially at someone else’s dog). In doggie language, it means you want to interact in an aggressive or confrontational way.
It’s difficult for a dog to overcome her natural propensities, and it’s equally hard for us to do the same. Either party can irritate the other, but humans have the unique gift of self-awareness. By becoming attentive to how we treat the dog, and to our reaction to her behavior, we can alter our conduct.  And that means a happier, less-stressed pooch! 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What’s the buzz on insect repellents for pets

It seems like this year’s soggy, weather will never end, nibbling away at our already limited Midwest summer fun. Eventually the weather gods will our answer our prayers for a reprieve, but then we’ll have to take the bad with the good. That means putting up with blood-sucking and biting pests: i.e., fleas and ticks, mosquitoes, flies, gnats, and chiggers.

Safe flea and tick products abound, so I won’t even mention them.  But what are our four-legged friends to do when deerflies dive-bomb them, flies munch on them, or mosquitoes hover while awaiting an opportunity to have a meal? 

We humans turn to DEET to repel insects.  It’s highly effective, and it’s also safe if used properly, especially considering the alternatives. (Encephalitis or West Nile virus, anyone?)

My searches on our Veterinary Information Network regarding the use of that compound on pets divulged as many opinions on the subject as there are Republican presidential candidates. Some say it’s hazardous; others say that if used judiciously, it’s safe and effective; and there are many viewpoints in between.

Which expert is right?  I’ve always discouraged the use of DEET in pets, and when I searched ASPCA Poison Control ( and the Pet Poison Helpline ( I saw my advice validated:  Fuhgeddaboudit!  No DEET for dogs and cats.

I was hiking recently through thick woods on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, where hordes of mosquitoes were suspended in the air in cloudlike clusters along the paths. I noted that the nasty little vampires would fly toward me as I walked past, then swerve away. The herbal product I’d applied before the trek had proved its worthiness and earned its moniker honestly:  Swerve. 

That got me thinking about the use of herbal insecticides for dogs and cats: Are they effective and safe to use?

Herbal products are made with essential oils. Those are obtained by distilling natural plant oils, and they have the characteristic fragrance of the plants from which they were extracted. The potential danger of an essential oil relates to its level of purity. Poor-quality oils can cause skin irritation, can provoke an allergic reaction, and can even be toxic to the liver.

They appear to work fairly well, but how does a pet owner know which ones are safe to use? I don’t think there’s any way to tell for sure. If you want to take the plunge, visit Dr. Melissa Shelton’s web site and decide for yourself. I noticed that she has a “testimonials” link, but I see no evidence of species-specific clinical trials. She sells an insect repellent called Away that contains essential oils and is purported to be safe for dogs.

But why use a product of questionable provenance when there’s a safe alternative on the market?  That would be picaridin. It’s as effective as DEET, is not known to irritate skin and eyes in humans, does not have a pungent odor, and has a wide margin of safety in dogs.  Beagle studies using high dosages on the skin every 24 hours for one year demonstrated no toxicity. There have been no such studies on cats.

Picaridin can be found in several products for humans, including Off! FamilyCare Insect Repellent II (Clean Feel) and Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin.  These preparations might need to be applied every two to six hours, depending on the percentage of picaridin in the product. When applying insecticides to the dog’s face, spritz some on a cloth and wipe it on rather than use a direct spray. 

Can flea and tick products be effective against other types of pests?  Those with permethrin claim to repel flying insects.  In my experience, the permethrin products which are applied to the coat, such as Advantix, do repel insects.  The problem is that the repellent effect wears off in a few days, and the product can’t be reapplied for three to four weeks.  I haven’t been impressed.

It’s worth mentioning that some dogs are plagued by flies gnawing on the delicate edges of their ears. I can’t vouch for their efficacy, but products such as Roll-on Fly Repellent or Swat Fly Repellent Ointment should help. Even using plain Vaseline on the ear tips can be effective in preventing flies from biting.

Don’t forget the old rules, which still apply:  Peak biting times for mosquitoes are from dusk to dawn, so try to get your daily dog walks in at other times.  And get rid of as much standing water on your property as possible.
As William Shakespeare wrote, "Summer's lease hath all too short a date," so carpe diem!  Grab your bottle of Avon Skin-So-Soft and let your pooch have a grand time outdoors.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Teach your dog to say “please”!

Kids can be demanding, impolite little critters, and we usually have only ourselves to blame.  It’s easier to placate them by giving in to the shakedown than it is to do the right thing; hence, the child who whines at the grocery store gets handed a treat.  Guilty!

Based on the complaints my clients have about their dogs’ uncivilized behaviors, it’s apparent that they give in to their dictatorial pooches as much as to their progeny; i.e., their dogs are bratty, too!

Many dog owners have been told that having an obedient pet requires proving you’re the alpha dog by bossing him around.  Those of us with children have tried this, and I know how it worked for me:  It didn’t.  Like kids, dogs will obey when threatened with harsh consequences, but it can damage the bond you have with them and cause more behavioral problems. 

Your dog wants resources:  food, toys, walks, play time, and affection. When you control those resources, you’ll gain his respect and attention. Make him earn what he wants, and watch your relationship with him change.  That is a training principle that has been around many years and goes by various names, such as “no free lunch” and “learn to earn.”  The program erases old bad behaviors and establishes good new ones in a matter of days, not weeks or months.

The foundation of the program is controlling the dog’s resources, especially the one that’s the most valuable to him:  food.  He will get what he wants only by saying “please”:  He must sit automatically and look at you for permission. Every bite of food that goes into his mouth is controlled by you.  Every toy he gets, every pat he gets, he must earn by saying “please.” 

As veterinarians have studied dog behavior through the years, this “no free lunch” concept has evolved into a scientifically sound program.  My favorite resource is Dr. Sophia Yin’s protocol called “Teaching Fido to Learn to Earn” ( She actually has dog owners tether themselves to their dogs for the first few days of the training (, an intense learning experience that is highly effective in establishing lasting behavioral changes.

I already hear the protests: Who has time for that?  Consider this:  Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re already training your dog all day long, anyway.  When you let him push ahead of you through a door, you’re training him to be disrespectful.  You might as well use the same situation to teach him that you’re his leader. 

Dr. Yin’s tethering method reaps the greatest rewards, but I still think the program is worth doing even without it. Learning your role does require some reading and preparation, but as with anything new, eventually you’ll do it automatically.  You’ll continue to reinforce your dog’s polite behavior with praise, tidbits, or other rewards.

Crash diets don’t work, but this crash course in manners has always been remarkable to me.  I’ve seen it work not only on unruly dogs, but also on those with anxiety and fear.  When they have a consistent leader to guide them, it gives them great comfort.  Dogs actually like having a predictable commander-in-chief to look up to. Give your dog a gift: Teach him to say “please,” s'il vous plait!