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07 July 2014

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Fat Or Fit?

Fit vs. Fat

Fit vs. Fat

If you own a television, you’ve seen them: the weight-loss ads. Meals promising you can “eat all the food you like” while trimming down to your “show-off weight,” and pills that help you shrink your excess pounds so you can finally be “the real you” (because your real you naturally is a size 2). These ads would have you believe that you’re nobody unless you’ve got rock-hard abs and can flaunt your skinny body in a bikini without offending fellow beach-goers.

But wait, there’s more … there are now weight-loss drugs on the market targeted at your dog. As an article in the Associated Press declares about Slentrol, a new weight-loss drug for dogs:

Is your Hound round? Too much flab on your Lab? Is your Husky, well, husky? A new drug may provide some help. The government approved the first drug for obese canines on Friday. Called Slentrol, the Pfizer Inc. drug is aimed at helping fat Fidos shed extra pounds.

“This is a welcome addition to animal therapies, because dog obesity appears to be increasing,” said Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the Food and Drug Administration. A dog that weighs 20 percent more than its ideal weight is considered obese. That takes in about 5 percent of the nearly 65 million dogs in the United States. An additional 20 percent to 30 percent are considered overweight.”

After checking to make sure that the article came from a reputable news outlet and not (as I might have hoped) from a satire page, I don’t know whether this should make me laugh or cry. Sure, it would be easy to laugh about the idea of weight-loss pills for dogs, but this isn’t the first product on the market designed to help pets lose weight. Weight-loss formula foods have lined pet store shelves for years.

This is a much bigger issue in society: we’ll throw drugs at a problem to make the symptoms go away instead of actually treating the problem. We don’t just do this when it comes to animals, either. Let’s not forget that we’re at a point in our history where New York City limits soft drinks to those 16oz or under because larger drinks make us fat. Clearly – someone thought that law needed to be in place because people can’t be trusted to make healthy choices.

Diet drugs for dogs might address the symptom (being overweight) but they don’t address the problem (why the dog is overweight). That problem begins and ends with the human who owns the dog. Unless your dogs roam the neighborhood grazing on farm fields and killing game to their hearts’ content, it’s probably safe to say that food that’s making them fat is coming from you, the owner. That’s also where addressing the problem needs to start.

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What’s the “Ideal” Body Composition?

It’s difficult to address the problem of keeping a dog at a lean, healthy weight without first defining what a lean, healthy weight is. Over the years, I have noticed that many people, including a fair number of veterinarians, don’t really know what a healthy weight looks like on a dog and what sorts of things they should be looking for when judging body condition. That’s not to say that these people don’t love their dogs – only that many people view overweight as the ideal. Perhaps that’s because we’re so used to seeing overweight dogs or because people are so quick to call abuse when a dog is thinner than they think it ought to be.

Ironically, it is the Nestle Purina pet food company that came up with the Body Condition Chart in 1997, a copy of which hangs in most veterinary clinics in the country. It’s a great chart consisting of both images and text, and I highly recommend keeping a copy of it handy if you work with dogs or in a setting that involves teaching people about dogs. You can download it by clicking the small preview of it below.

Nestle Purina Body Condition Chart (click to download full version)

Nestle Purina Body Condition Chart (click to download full version)

As you can see from a chart, dogs that are in the 4 and 5 scores are considered to be of an ideal weight: you should be able to easily feel the ribs but not see them, you should be able to see a clearly defined waist from above, and an abdominal tuck behind the ribs when viewed from the side. An easy way of measuring body fat on a dog is by placing the heel of your palm on the dog’s spine, fingers facing down along the dog’s side over the ribs. You should be easily able to feel the ribs with your fingertips without having to press down hard to locate them.

One thing that should be mentioned about this chart is that it measures dogs’ weight when they stand still and are at rest. A dog that’s in good, lean condition may show as very “ribby” when he’s panting hard after vigorous exercise, for example, and both coat color and coat length play an important role in how thin (or not thin) a dog may appear from the outside, which is why feeling for the ribs is a better indicator of body composition than simply looking at the dog.

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How to Keep Your Dog Lean & Healthy

There’s a magic formula to keeping your dog lean and healthy – or getting him there if he’s a little on the heavy side – that doesn’t involve any special diet foods, weight-loss drugs, or other gadgets:

  • Select a Quality Food

    If you’d asked me five years ago what the ideal food for your dog is, I may have recommended the Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) diet or a high quality, grain-free kibble as your first choices.

    However, I no longer believe that there is such a thing as the ideal food for all dogs. There’s only the best food that works for your dog and that works for you. Meaning: I’ve encountered many dogs who didn’t do well on the BARF diet and I’ve met many owners who didn’t have the time and knowledge to feed such a diet. I’ve met many dogs who didn’t do well on some types of grain-free kibble and many who did. I’ve also met many dogs with owners who loved them but who couldn’t afford $60+ per bag of a high quality kibble.

    My recommendation now is this: do your research and select the best quality food you can afford that works for your dog. If you’re interested in the raw diet, Lauri’s Raw Dog Ranch website is a great place to start. If you’re not ready to feed raw but want to make better choices when it comes to dry or canned foods, the Dog Food Project will help you get started on reading and understanding the labels. As for us, in case anyone’s wondering, we’ve been feeding Taste of the Wild to all of our dogs, including fosters, since 2007.

  • Feed on a Schedule – Don’t Free Feed

    Dog trainers, behaviorists, and veterinarians don’t always agree on things, but ask any of them, and they will tell you that routine is very important in a dog’s life. Established routines help dogs to know what to expect and keep their stress levels low, which is why it’s so important to establish a routine when bringing a new dog into the home or keeping up with a current routine when moving or traveling with your pet.

    Having a feeding schedule is important for a couple of reasons: (1) it helps establish a daily routine for your dog, (2) you are metering how much food your dog gets and can increase or decrease it as needed, (3) you can observe and address feeding-related problems as they occur (for example, gulping down food too quickly or one dog taking food from another), and (4) you may become aware of possible health issues if you notice your dog isn’t eating.

    Free feeding, which is the practice of leaving food out for your dog all day (and filling the bowl as needed) is almost never a good idea. It doesn’t allow you to meter how much food your dog is getting, doesn’t allow you to monitor which dog is eating and which may be not eating due to illness or due to being bullied by the other dog in multiple dog households, and allows food to go stale or breed bacteria (yuck).

  • Limit Treats and Table Scraps

    Look at any dieting website, and you’ll find that one of the top recommendations for loosing weight is to cut out empty calories: things such as sugary drinks, sweet snacks, and junk food. The same rule of thumb holds true for dogs: if you want Fido to slim down to an ideal weight, you’ll want to take it easy on table scraps, sharing your own food, and giving him treats.

    That’s not to say that you shouldn’t use treats in training: research shows that dogs actually prefer to receive treats for doing something instead of getting them for no reason at all, but you’ll need to find a balance between the calories your dog gets from their regular food intake and from their training treats. If you train a lot using food, you’ll want to cut down a little on kibble.

  • Exercise Daily

    Amazingly, a lot of the suggestions for keeping dogs at a healthy weight are the same suggestions doctors, dietitians, and nutritionists have been giving to people for a long time. However, the recommendation of daily exercise is perhaps even more important for dogs than people: most dogs now live indoors and only get their outdoor exercise when their owners let them outside, take them for walks, or take them other places. Aside from causing obesity in dogs, a lack of exercise also causes behavioral issues, such as being destructive, which lead many owners to give their dogs up to shelters!

    One thing about exercise: there’s a big difference between structured and unstructured exercise. Sadly, too many dog owners think that they can simply turn their dog out into the unfenced yard so he will exercise himself: but that’s not how dogs work. A single dog turned out into the yard won’t be running laps. He might play with the soccer ball you’ve given him for a little while, but he’s not going to spend his whole day working off energy. More likely, he’ll get bored and start digging up the flower bed or charging at the fence when he sees passers-by. The best exercise are daily, structured walks (or runs, or bicycle runs) along with off-leash play time in the yard (like fetching a Frisbee) or with other dogs. Swimming is a great low-impact exercise for older dogs to stay in shape or very heavy dogs to start shedding pounds.

Breed Specific Legislation

dangerousdogs

If you own a large-breed dog, such as a Rottweiler or a German Shepherd, you’ve probably encountered people before while you were out with your dog, who were afraid. Not necessarily of your dog in particular, or even of all dogs in general, but of the particular breed of dog you own.

I know I’ve gotten it. The up-to-no-good teenagers loitering at the corner who’d disperse at the sight of my German Shepherd. The moving guy who asked me if “that is one of those K-9′s,” the guy down the street telling his children not to “approach that big, mean dog,” and the little kid jumping behind mom screaming in terror “OMG! Big doooog!”

I also know that my dog doesn’t deserve those comments. While I would like her to be alert and even wary of strangers, I generally encourage folks to come up and pet her, and many do. Dog people tell me what a beautiful dog she is, and parents are in awe when they see that she will lay down on command to be petted by their children. Kids giggle with glee when she licks their hands or will lay down for them when they tell her “down” (with a little hand-signal help from me in the background, anyway).

But she is still a German Shepherd, and in the eyes of some, that makes her a vicious, dangerous dog who needs to be included in breed-specific legislation. Many insurance companies won’t insure you if you own a German Shepherd – even one who’s still a puppy and has never bitten anyone, not even in play.

Most landlords will not rent to you if you own a German Shepherd, either – they’re included in their list of banned breeds. Ironically, a Labrador Retriever is more likely to bite someone (they account for most dog bites in the United States), and the average cat is more likely to ruin a property’s rental value by peeing on the carpets or sharpening her claws on the wall.

You might say that breed specific legislation doesn’t concern you because you don’t own a Pit Bull, a Rottweiler, or a Doberman. Maybe you own a Poodle, a Golden Retriever, or a Jack Russel Terrier – so why worry about it? The reason you should worry about it is that breed specific legislation concerns anyone who owns and loves a dog. You may not have one of the dogs in question, but how would you, as a responsible owner, feel if one day, someone said that your dog was dangerous because of its breed, and that you needed to surrender it to be euthanized within x amount of days.

Here are a couple of further links with additional information that is far more eloquent than anything that I have to say. On top of that, it comes from the dog world: from professional dog trainers and from dog organizations. If you’re going to take anyone’s word this issue, it should be these people’s.

There are many more organizations who oppose Breed-Specific Legislation, but not all of them have their position statements on their website where they can easily be linked. These organizations include working dog clubs, breed clubs, and veterinarians, as well as training and behavior organizations.

Just A Dog

justadog

This beautiful poem has been circulating on the Internet for a while, sadly without the author’s name or a source link. If you happen to know who wrote this, would you please let us know so that we may attribute it correctly?

Just A Dog

From time to time, people tell me: “Lighten up, it’s just a dog.”
Or, “That’s a lot of money for just a dog.”
They don’t understand the distance traveled, the time spent,
Or the costs involved in “just a dog.”

Some of my proudest moments have come about with “just a dog.”
Many hours have passed and my only company was “just a dog,”
But I did not once feel slighted.

Some of my saddest moments have been brought about by “just a dog,”
And in those days of darkness, the gentle touch of “just a dog”
Gave me comfort and the reason to overcome the day.

If you, too, think it’s “just a dog,”
Then you probably understand phrases like
Just a friend, just a sunrise, or just a promise.
“Just a dog” brings into my life the very essence of
Friendship, trust, and pure, unbridled joy.

“Just a dog” brings out the compassion and patience
That makes me a better person.
Because of “just a dog” I will rise early, take long walks,
And look longingly to the future.

So for me and those like me, it’s not “just a dog,”
But an embodiment of all the hopes and dreams of the future,
The fond memories of the past, and the pure joy of the moment.
“Just a dog” brings out what’s good in me
And diverts my thoughts away from myself and the worries of the day.

I hope that, someday, they can understand that it’s not “just a dog,”
But the thing that gives me humanity and keeps me from being “just a person.”
So, next time you hear the phrase “just a dog” …
Just smile. Because they just don’t understand.

Overheard in Class

For a while, we trained at All About Dogs in Virginia, which is the only facility where I’ve trained that used a levels system for classes rather than your standard 8 week obedience course – and it made a lot more sense. Rather than being pushed through an 8 week class without mastering the skills, each of the four levels required that you mastered certain skills before moving on to the next level, but if you ever felt like you need additional practice on a “lower” level skill, you could always drop into one of the lower classes for practice.

Anyway, because of the way the system is set up, it’s not unusual to see people in class you’ve never met before, which was the case for us in today’s Level 3 class. The class was unusually packed with about 10 dogs, and the three trainers and assistants were keeping an eye on everyone. A chair over from us was a new guy I’d never seen before, along with his happy, goofy Golden Retriever. We were practicing sit-stays and were just about ready to move to down-stays.

Just as I gave the command “Platz!, the German word for down, one of the trainers passed between us and the fellow with the Golden, who remarked to her, “How stereotypical – a German Shepherd trained in German.” To which the trainer replied, “Yes, but Abby’s owner actually speaks German.” That shut him up.

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Do you use commands in a foreign language? Have you ever gotten weird comments or strange questions about it? We’d love to hear your stories about training in another language – please feel free to post them to the comments!

If you’d like to use German commands (or perhaps another language), this post has a handy list of the five most important commands – sit, down, stay, come, and heel – in four commonly-used foreign languages: German, Dutch, French, and Czech.

Furminator

Item: FURminator
Cost: starting at $37.99 for dogs
Available from: FURminator Store

What it promises: The FURminator tool was created by a professional pet groomer, Angie Porter, and her husband, David, in an attempt to find an easy-to-use and safe product to remove loose undercoat from dogs during grooming and reduce shedding. The product website claims that the tool “can help reduce the amount of loose hair in your house by up to 90%” and that the patented design helps the tool “push through the topcoat to easily and gently remove the undercoat and loose hair without cutting or damaging the dog’s delicate skin.”

How it stacks up: As those of you with German Shepherds know, they’re not called German Shedders without reason: they not only blow their coats twice a year, but they also shed all year long. Because of this, there’s always a lot of discussion about the best tools to rake out that undercoat and deal with the shedding on German Shepherd forums, which is how I first learned about the FURminator tool. Sure, I’d seen the commercials on television, but I’d expected that it would be no different from most as-seen-on-TV gadgets: lots of hype and not a lot of results. It wasn’t until I saw glowing reviews on the Shepherd forum, which consistently referred to it as the best thing ever, that my interest was piqued and I decided to give it a try.

Let me say first off that they’re not cheap. On the FURminator website, the smallest of the FURminator tools made for dogs start at $37.99. I ordered a Medium from Amazon and paid $31 with shipping, which was an excellent deal. As soon as the package arrived, I tried it out on our German Shepherd, Abby, and I’m happy to report that it does exactly what it claims it does. The tool is easy to use, doesn’t scratch or hurt the dog, and gets a ton of undercoat off. In fact, it gets off enough of that undercoat to build another dog. (Or at least a small puppy.) So it definitely does what it claims to do, and that gets two paws up from us.

Before and After: just look at the huge pile of undercoat!

Before and After: just look at the huge pile of undercoat!

Shelters, Rescues, and Honesty

Being involved with dog rescue can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be extremely frustrating.

On the one hand, when each part of the rescue chain works well together, it enables rescues to pull dogs from kill shelters or from bad situations, place them into foster homes, and eventually adopt them into what’s commonly called a “forever home” (the dog’s new owners). This process involves a lot of people: those who monitor the local shelter or let the rescue know about dogs that need help; people who do temperament evaluations and get more information about the dog from the shelter or the current owner: things such as health, bite history, socialization, training, etc.; folks who pick up and transport the dog; the vet staff who sees and treats them; the folks who provide foster homes where the dogs live (and are cared for) in their family environment; and, ultimately, the people who adopt the dog.

On the other hand, when there’s an issue along the rescue chain, the entire undertaking can be difficult and frustrating for everyone involved, though it’s usually the dog who winds up on the losing side. One such road block often happens right at the beginning of the rescue chain: it happens when the shelter or the dog’s current owner is not honest about the dog’s health, bite history, behavior issues, and prior training.

It’s almost understandable why dog owners are often reluctant to be honest about their dog’s issue when giving him up to a rescue or a shelter. If they told the truth – for example, that the dog has now bitten three members of their own family and they just can’t manage his aggressive behavior – then the dog would be likely put to sleep at a kill shelter, and a rescue might refuse to take him into a foster home. (Keep in mind that foster homes are volunteers. They’re everyday people who have their own animals and their own families to consider when they take in a foster pet.) Though understandable, it’s not right – it can put people in danger.

What’s really not understandable, however, is when shelters lie to rescues.

Sadly, that’s something we’ve seen happen first-hand. At the time, Brian and I were involved in many of the different aspects of dog rescue: we did temperament evaluations at the shelter, pulled and transported dogs, fostered dogs, did home visits with potential adopters, and participated in rescue events, from adoption days to reunions. So when we saw a senior German Shepherd show up in one of our local kill shelters, we didn’t waste time to evaluate her and pass her information on to German Shepherd rescue, in hopes that she could either be placed into a foster home or that one of the approved adopters on the rescue’s waiting list might be interested.

When we went to evaluate the dog, shelter staff were very nice and helpful. They allowed us to take her to an outside pen for evaluation and answered the many questions we had. The staff members told us she had been left at a local groomer’s by her prior owner because she was “too expensive.” The owner had left no additional information, so they didn’t know if the dog was current on vaccines, but she had been having diarrhea, tested heartworm negative, and was otherwise in good health. They also made it clear that if nobody pulled her, she would likely be put to sleep on Friday.

After passing the information along to our rescue, the rescue followed up with the shelter separately because some confusion had arisen in regards to who would actually pick the dog up: the shelter thought it would be either Brian or me, but we were both working that morning, so it would be another person from the rescue. It was during this phone call that the shelter staff person they spoke to mentioned how surprised she was any rescue would take a senior dog with such serious health issues.

As it turns out, the staff members who’d been so helpful in answering our questions a few days before, had been lying to us: although they’d told us they didn’t know anything about the dog’s health history, the shelter actually had her entire vet file. Approximately a year earlier, the dog started having diarrhea which became chronic. Although the vet had recommended both an endoscopy and a biopsy to test for cancer and other possible causes, the owner had elected not to treat the dog. After a year of on and off diarrhea, the owner decided to dump the dog at the shelter instead of either seeking treatment or putting the dog to sleep.

This brings me back to the matter of honesty: what the shelter did was, essentially, trying to saddle the rescue with providing the medical testing and treatment this dog needed, or (alternatively) with the cost of her euthanasia, by telling us that there was nothing wrong with her when she was obviously very sick. In a world where rescues have very limited resources that need to be used prudently to help as many dogs as possible, that’s a pretty rotten thing to do. This clearly hurt the working relationship the rescue had with this particular shelter, but at the same time, it also brings up another question: what if someone entirely unaffiliated with a rescue had come simply to adopt this dog. Would they have lied to that person and told them that there’s nothing wrong with the dog? The shelter would have made $40 in adoption fees for the dog, and the new owner would have been saddled with the impending medical bills that the shelter knew the dog would incur.

That’s a pretty rotten thing, if you ask me!

 

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