Canine Caregiver Consistency: Bridging the Language Barrier

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Consistency At Dinner Time Helps Create Good Dinner-Time Manners

Consistency At Dinner Time Helps Create Good Dinner-Time Manners

Time for another repost!!  Lets talk about canine caregivers, specifically about one, oh-so important area that affects our relationship with our canines: our consistency.

Professionals do not become “Pro’s” overnight. Doctors do not become doctors on a hope and a dream, NHL All-Stars do not achieve greatness by sitting on the couch, and people dedicated to a deep understanding of canine behaviour don’t just wake up one day with the ability to speak “animal.” Such individuals work diligently and train mentally and physically to create the basic skill set required to master their area of expertise. Consistent effort and practice of the fundamentals are important exercises that help all types of professionals excel and reach the top!

That word, consistency, pops up quite a bit. Consistency can be defined as the “steadfast adherence to the same principles, course, form, etc.” (Dictionary.com, 2014). In the canine world, we talk about consistency of technique, timing, methodology, reward, punishment, routine, etc. but we don’t necessarily say why we want to be consistent. Well consistency, or being dependable with action and response, in all aspects of your relationship with your canine can have a profoundly positive impact!

All relationships are built on the basics of communication. Consistency, or acting in a consistent way as you instruct, praise, correct and go about navigating the world around you, will greatly help canines understand your requests and current emotional state. Consistency can give them clues on how to respond or prepare to respond. Being consistent will help our canines through:

Practice Practice Practice.  Zoom Helping Unload his favorite groceries

Reliability: Instructing, praising, redirecting and timing are the cornerstones to educating your canine in both an effective and efficient way during training sessions and new encounters. By structuring your training sessions and creating a plan to achieve new goals, we can control our learning sessions more effectively and add to our ability to remain consistent throughout the process.   By doing so, we are actually able to increase the reliability our canine’s behaviour across different situations and scenarios as they come up in our day-to-day lives.

Faster learning/sharper learning curve: Adding a level of consistency to our interactions with our canines will help them understand what is being asked of them regardless of the situation. If your dog has gone through a learning process where the actions and results are the same every time, the connection between cause and effect quickly becomes quite clear for them…. If this happens, and I act this way, this outcome (e.g. praise) will occur. If the outcome to their response varies in each “trial” or occurrence, then the connection becomes muddled and it will take longer to learn the right behaviour, as well as the possibility of learning the wrong behaviour can also arise. This is a basic fundamental of behavioural conditioning (both in a classical and operant sense) but isn’t necessarily thought of in a “practical application” sort of way when we are out in the world with our canines.

Emotional Understanding: Along with increased reliability of behaviour and ability for faster learning, working on the consistency within us will help our canines understand our emotional state. If we react to the same situations in a similar fashion each time, our emotional response remains consistent and our canines will begin to learn what we are/are not comfortable with. They can then begin to predict how we will react, thus speeding up their response to various situations and furthering the development of the human-canine bond. Don’t believe me? An article just released at the end of November shows canines demonstrating an understanding of subtle changes in human communication such as emotional tone, intonation and volume changes. Read more on how dogs do understand their master’s voice.

Adding consistency to our interactions with our canines requires practice. After a training session or new encounter/situation has come up, take an introspective moment to assess what went on, how your canine behaved, and most importantly, how you behaved and responded (acted). You may quickly find a key… possibly why the scenario worked out perfectly, and maybe why it could have gone better and how you can facilitate that the next time!

Need help with your consistency? Like a personal trainer for physical fitness, a large part of my work is assessing the areas of your canine relationship that could use more consistent effort. I design and chart training sessions and goals that you and your dog can follow and achieve together!

References:

Dictionary.com (2015). Consistency Definition. Retrieved from:http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/consistency. Accessed on: October 14th, 2015.

TheeAmigos

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Being Canine Prepared For the Worst: Canine Bug Out Bags

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Northern California

Seems strange that it was just August 2014 that I wrote an article on being prepared, and making sure your canine is ready for the worst too.  Fast forward a year, and for similar reasons (another act of Mother Nature) I feel compelled to bring this subject up again.

Being prepared can seem like an over used motto, but some very serious and real outcomes can be alleviated and even avoided with a little pre-planning.  With the devastation seen in Northern California, it is easy to see why forest fires are scary, seemingly “living” things that can destroy thousands of hectares, homes, even towns, without slowing.  Wind, humidity, ground moisture, human activities, and even other acts of nature (e.g. lightening) are all factors that can cause the speed, direction, and intensity to change.  All make fires very unpredictable and can catch residents off guard, requiring them to leave without a moments notice.  You might ask how we can be prepared for that?  Well in many ways we can’t, but if we have an evacuation plan in place, just like the fire drills we had at school growing up, we can make things happen quickly, orderly, and most importantly, safely for everyone involved.

One way to facilitate a safe and speedy evacuation is to have a “bug-out” bag for all your family members.  Most people have a good idea of what a bag for a human would have in it, but what about our canines?  What is important?  What are the must haves?  Well look no further, here is a list to help you make sure your canine is just as ready as the rest of your family when the time comes to split!

  1. Food: Whether it is kibble or cans, bring enough food for at least three days. (And a way to open the cans!)
  2. Medication: Any specific medication needed for your dogs. Zoom doesn’t have much, but I’ll be including Zoom’s tick and flea medication. Other examples: arthritis, heart, anti-seizure, eye or ear drops, etc. Again, have multiple days’ worth in case you cannot return home for a refill.
  3. Water: Try to bring enough bottled water to prevent dehydration during the first 12 hours of an emergency. Infrastructure may not be working, or county water sources maybe tainted.
  4. Collapsible food and water bowl.
  5. An extra leash, harness, and ID collar, in case you can’t get to the part of the house where you normally keep these items.
  6. Medical records: Have a printed and/or electronic copy of your canine’s medical record in case they are injured or you have to go to a different veterinarian than normal. Having their background information can greatly accelerate how vets can help you out in the event of an emergency.
  7. Have a basic first aid (e.g. compression bandages, topical wound treatment) to help treat any injuries that could have been sustained during a natural disaster.
  8. Blanket: This can help keep your dog warm, give them a bed to lay on, and can also help you treat shock or hypothermia if needed.
  9. Strong Bag:  You don’t want to put all this effort in, put everything in a plastic bag, and have it rip spilling everything while you are running out of the house.  So make sure the bag is sturdy (e.g. heavy rip stop nylon), can be closed to avoid contamination, has easy to grab handles, and suites your ability to carry things.  If you can’t carry a lot in your arms, get a backpack style bag that you can sling over your shoulders!
Zoom's Bug Out Bag!

Zoom’s Bug Out Bag!

NOTE: Try to make sure your bag is in a good place you can grab easily and also make sure it isn’t too heavy. You don’t want to struggle with the weight of the bag. If your pet is going for a sleepover or a longer stay because you are out of town, drop them off with the bag and let the sitter know what it is for and why you have made it.

It doesn’t take long to create or keep a bug-out bag maintained (fresh food, water, and medication), so I would encourage you to set aside half an hour this week to plan one out. And if disaster strikes, you and your furry friend will be very happy you took a few minutes to plan ahead.

If you would like to share ideas of what’s in your bug-out bag, or you want to send pictures of the final result to our community, tweet them to @CaninesByDesign. And of course, I’m always here to answer any questions about your bug-out bag and what you can do to make sure you and your canine are prepared in the case of any emergency.  STAY SAFE!!!

Fall Blues… Back To School and Back to Reality: Fostering Canine Adaptability, not Destruction

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Fall Blues

Time for an important post (or repost)!!  Some may have seen this last year, for all you new followers, this one is well worth the read and could save you some headaches down the road!!!

August has faded into September and thousands of students are heading back for another school year. While students might be dragging their feet, the arrival of fall is usually accompanied by a smile of relief from their parents! It means a return to normalcy and a schedule. Summertime activities keep everyone busy and entertained, including your canines: Everyone is home, people are happy and excited, and nice weather usually means frequent trips to a favorite beach, lake or park. When September hits, the kids sigh with procrastination, the parents sigh with relief… and, in many cases, our canines sigh with sadness because their home dynamic changes drastically.

At home, things can get quiet quickly without children playing and moms and dads temporarily home on holidays. Two months is enough time for this level of elevated activity and companionship to become a constant fixture in our canine’s life. With back-to-school and back to work, schedules are shuffled and new routines are made. Sometimes in all the chaos, our furry companions can get missed, and some assurances that they have become used to, and somewhat reliant on, might not happen.

I could spend this whole article talking about variables and how they can have a resultant effect on your canine, but my goal here is to help you ensure your canine has the skills to deal with changes in their routines and help make sure they are adaptable and not destructive.

Pro Tips:

  1. Start new routines slowly and gradually.
  • If you know there is going to be a schedule change for your canine, start preparing for that change by modifying your current schedule gradually over a few days.
  • Have family help out by explaining why this gradual change is important.
  1. Plan ahead to make sure your canine will still get all their necessary exercise, both mental and physical.
  • We have our social lives, work, friends and an integrated community. Your canine has you and a select few others that they rely on for everything. Don’t forget that! If it means waking up earlier to ensure they have had a decent walk and training session prior to a period of time on their own, then schedule it in!
  • Again, have family help out. If you have children, small 10-minute training sessions can become part of their regular schedules before or after school. These moments can become great family bonding time where everyone is together smiling and having fun… including your puppy.
  • If you think an 8 hour work day feels long for you, try being a dog waiting patiently at home. I am blessed that I work in the canine world, which means Zoom is almost always with me. When he isn’t, we try to think of our day in three-hour blocks. Modify your schedule, utilize a trustworthy neighbor or friend, or join a local community walking group. There are many ways to make sure your pup doesn’t have to spend countless hours and days alone waiting to relieve themselves or go socialize.
  1. Always, always set your canine up for success during alone time.
  • Leave music or the TV on to add some ambient noise to the environment so that the house isn’t silent all day as silence can heighten anxiety in canines.
  • Use the same routine when leaving every time. Tell your canine “you will be back” every time. Offer a Kong with a little peanut butter or frozen pumpkin in it to help ease the initial separation and keep them distracted when you go. Doing this consistently will also help your canine pair “positive feelings and excitement” when you leave versus feelings of negativity and fear.
  • Make sure that your canine is in an environment that is safe and enriched. By cleaning up garbage, removing chewable items (power cords), leaving the floors clean and making sure they have access to safe items (items you have had success leaving with them) such as their bed, you help make sure that if they do become anxious that they don’t take it out on something they shouldn’t.
  • As noted above, make sure both their physical and mental needs are taken care of BEFORE you go. A bored mind will wander and an anxious body will only compound this, creating a situation in which your dog may try or do something they have never done before (e.g. chew furniture).

Taking the mental and physical needs of our canines into consideration during periods of transition and change will only help to make your dog adaptable and flexible, decreasing your already-long list of worries and stress.

If you are unsure of what you can leave or do with your canine in your situation, I’m here to help. Contact Canines By Design and I would be glad to help set you and your canine up for success by creating safe space solutions in and around your home.

... Well It Looks Comfy For Him Still!

Green, Yellow, Red: What Zone Is Your Canine In?

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Zoom and Ireland Road Trippin!!

Zoom and Ireland Road Trippin!!

Part 1 of this mini series talked about how stimuli in our environment affect our canines mental state, how some variables can increase the level of anxiety and stress in our canines depending on their individual backgrounds, and how we can to begin to understand and work with these nuances in each of our furry companions. Part 2 then went into talking about the limits that each of our canines have, and how even when we are setting them up for success, and creating positive situations that each one of these interactions and moments is cumulative. As we build them up through appropriate interactions and training experiences, our canines are using up their “comfort/stress” fuel, and when this tank is empty, much like when we become over worked or over stressed, our mental “thinking” faculties begin to work inefficiently, that we and our canines are less likely to work through situations appropriately and can be more likely to default back to behaviours that we might be trying to stop or avoid simply because they are too tired to deal with the situation.

Part 3 is all about putting this all into action. Knowing what we now know, what is the best way to begin to tackle these “problem” areas of behaviour? Lets begin with another human analogy and an extreme version of counter-conditioning.

Thinking Like A Human:

Many humans are afraid of heights. For some, its any height, for others, its more extreme heights like standing on the top of a house or building. Now how would we be able to help any of them work through their fear?

At one time, a method called Flooding was used where a subject was subjected to a extremely high level of exposure to their known “fear” to the point they become numb to it. For some cases under extremely controlled environments, the process can work. However if even one aspect isn’t controlled for, it can have the reverse effect and even amplify the already existing issue. In the case of the person that is afraid of even a little height, a flooding example would be strapping a parachute on their back and having them skydive out of a plane. Sounds potentially traumatic doesn’t it? Imagine if they jumped with a trained instructor and they had their main chute fail and need to use the backup. Even though they landed safe, what effect do you think that added experience to an already intensely uncomfortable one would have? It is easy to see how the fear/uncertainty/unwillingness to engage in the future could be amplified by such a process.

Now picture the same person, extremely fearful of any height differences, being gradually built up to changes in elevation. Not only that, each small, and successful attempt is rewarded with praise and feelings of success?  Can steps backward happen in this scenario as well?  You bet!  That’s life! But each step forward is solidified through learning and each step back is smaller and as controlled as possible.

This is the progressive methodology we use at Canines By Design to help our clients achieve long lasting results and an understanding to work through any problem areas, whether it is desensitizing and counter-conditioning for canine related behaviours such as excitement, fear or aggression, or helping canines become more comfortable with particular environments, and even performing particular behaviours.

Canine Context:

Think of your canine a static object where the environment and the stimuli in that environment move around them. As your canine stands there, particular stimuli come and go, get closer, and then move further away. This applies to all stimuli. Smells come and go, sounds come and go, and visual cues come and go (albeit at different rates). Some of these stimuli are completely neutral, and are so for many reasons. One of the main reasons being that through previous exposure and learning experiences these stimuli offer no “outcome”, with those stimuli simply existing in the environment, and offering no “reward” or “punishment” outcome. But other stimuli are not so neutral. Positive outcomes (from their perspective) will drive the canine to perform the behaviour again, and negative experiences plus those that offer no outcome, can decrease the presentation of some behaviours and can also drive the canine to avoid or “control” those situations or stimuli.

In addition, depending on the severity of the previous encounter(s), this stress response can be immediate (think of our height phobia example in humans). For others, the stress response is more gradual, and as we get closer (or in the height example, as we get higher off the ground) this response grows until we cannot deal any longer. As these stimuli move closer to our canine, they begin to move through the zones of comfort. Check out the basic diagram below:

Zones of Comfort

The Zones Of Comfort:

If you and your dog area the black circle in the middle, you can see three distinct areas.

  • GREEN (outer ring): The green zone represents whatever distance is required from a certain stimuli for your canine to give it no attention at all. This is the “neutral” ring. At this distance your canine will go about listening to you and performing behaviours as you would expect and as you see in “safe” environments such as at home where they pay no attention to familiar stimuli around them. Think of this as your safe distance. Here you know you know you have your canines full attention and therefore have control of the situation. However, to train and work through behaviours we need our canine to be aware of the training stimuli/environment. For a young canine, or one that has led a sheltered life, the green zone may not be initially achievable in a new environment or one that offers high sensory stimulation. Make sure you are aware of this as you develop your bond and are getting out in your community together.
  • YELLOW (middle ring): As that stimuli moves closer to the center position it begins to transition from the green zone into the yellow zone. This zone, the “heightened awareness” zone, represents the distance from your canine from which the stimuli begins to illicit a response in our canine. They begin to look at the stimuli, body posturing may change, vocalization, leash manners, (there are many cues to engagement 🙂 ), and their resulting attention on you or the trainer may begin to change. OK, Time To Educate!!! This is the time to pull out all your redirection and set up for success techniques because your canine is now beginning to mentally engage with the stimuli, but is doing so at a distance where they still feel comfortable enough to listen to your redirection, continue to mentally engage with you, and learn from the situation.

It is important to remember though that we are also now depleting their “comfort/stress” fuel tank. Initially these tanks will empty more quickly when they are new to training and exposure (e.g. puppies or recent rescues) but their ranges will increase. You will know their tank is close to or empty when their attention and redirection skills are much less effective at a once effective distance (NOTE: this is very individual to every dog, and requires practice and time in different environments to see the small changes and cues, and understand how the relate to your canines internal state).

  • RED (inner ring): This zone is when the stimuli in your environment has moved close enough that your canine is focusing on it and you are “wrestling” to keep their attention. When we work with clients we treat this zone as the no go zone, but its not for the reason you may think. When stimuli enter into this zone, we as teachers will have an extremely tough time getting our students attention, having them focus on us, and learning “today’s lesson”. For some dogs this space is very close to them. Much like our personal space, and their issues lie when stimuli enter this. For other dogs, such as the example of a dog with a high prey drive, seeing a rabbit halfway across the soccer field might be close enough to be in their red zone, triggering previously learned behaviours (e.g. chase) versus listening to our redirection. As humans, we have a similar zone, that when things get to intense we can mentally “shut down” down, and rely on more basic “fight or flight” instincts. Some professions, such as Military, Police, Fire, and Rescue, train their employees specifically to be able to think in these tough situations (expand the range of their stress/comfort tank) and when its too tough for that, they have been conditioned through their training to still be able to perform their tasks. For the everyday canine caregiver though, we want to be able to comfortably go through our daily lives and make sure our set our canines up to feel the same way about things, so its learning in the yellow, avoiding the red!

A big concept to remember is that these distances or zones are fluid, and can change depending on the day, the particular environment, current health state of the canine, and also their energy levels and what kind of day they are having.  Knowing how stimuli have what kind of effect, at what distance, and when those stimuli transition from yellow to red takes a keen eye, patience, practice, and time to do it productively and safely.

Starting to think this way about your canine is an amazingly powerful tool and will help you view the world through their eyes. You will be able to quickly deduce “problem” areas anJeterd help avoid unnecessary confrontation while building both your canine and yourself up to certain situations at a safe and comfortable pace while you are out in your community! So now you are asking where can we help? Practicing the timing and learning to understand the cues in our environment and how they affect our canines takes time. Our motor skills and timing is just as important in the equation for success as our canines timing and skill sets. Let Canines By Design show you the way!

The Canine “Comfort/Stress” Fuel Tank: What Is Your Canine’s Range?

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Let’s dive a little deeper into your canine’s “Zone of Comfort.” Last week, we introduced the idea that your canine’s level of comfort is constantly being adjusted when things like their environment change or as they approach new, exciting (and even familiar) stimuli. We also talked about how we as caregivers need to account for this adjustment as part of how we create a successful, positive, and educational experience for our dogs. This week, we are going to talk about exposure limits to stress, and how stress affects our canines and their behaviour.

Let’s start with a human analogy: For some of the human population, entering a really busy mall or crowded street can be frightening, even debilitating. Heart rate rises, palms get sweaty, we get a little on edge, and it can even get to the point that we take ourselves out of that situation. But for others, going to a busy Sunday farmer’s market sounds like a perfect morning!

Next, think about one of those “unnerving” things in your life. How long could you be in the same room or in a closed situation with that “thing”? For some, about two seconds is enough before they want out! For others, with controlled practice, desensitization, and positive reinforcement, we can extend that time. In a sense, we have a “comfort/stress” fuel tank, and the more uncomfortable something makes us, the faster we use the tank up! Once our fuel is used up, we do not have an ability to deal with the situation we are in (or with that particular item(s) in the environment). Often, stressed emotion starts to overpower our thoughts. Military, police and related groups specifically train their members to increase their ability to handle severe and stressful situations (increase the range of their tank) so that they are still able to use their cognitive processes and training when it really counts!

The same stress scenarios regularly affect our canines. For some, specific stimuli can create real feelings of unrest, and if severe enough, they can elicit behaviours in our canines that we may have never seen before. In fact, we may only see them in that exact scenario! As we work with, and bond with, our canines, we begin to understand their likes and dislikes, where they feel comfortable – and where they do not.

If we are working through certain behaviours and are developing a desensitization program to a particular stimuli or behaviour, or simply working on socialization and general environmental exposure, keeping in mind the idea that our canines can only handle some situations, stimuli, environments, and their combinations, for a certain period of time becomes hugely powerful.

What it means for us as caregivers is that, alongside the bonding and discovery process, we need to also recognize the small signs and changes that show us that our canine’s “comfort/stress” tank is being used up. Most importantly, we should be in tune to the moment when it is getting close to being emptied. When this happens, just like in the human world, our canines will be more prone to reacting to situations versus thinking them through.  In some cases, A tired dog might be a happy dog, but like tired/distracted humans, mistakes in judgement and reaction can be made by these tired minds.  What we do with the “zones of comfort” at Canines By Design is work within a canine’s comfort boundaries (dictated by their behaviour to a particular environment or specific stimuli) and slowly build up their ability to handle the scenario, understand that the scenario is safe, and build the trust up between canine and caregiver. We want them to feel comfortable walking in their own paws, and it is about giving the caregiver and the canine the tools to do so in a positive way!

Next week is part three of the “Zones of Comfort” feature in which I’ll discuss the three colours we use, how they are used, and how they can supercharge your canine’s education in a safe and positive way!

Zones Of Comfort: Finding Canine Comfort in Uncomfortable Situations

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An ever popular topic here at Canines By Design, this week we bring up “zones of comfort”, what it means, how it affects your canine and how you can use it to help your canine through stressful situations.

Are you asking yourself “what does that mean?”… or “isn’t that some prop from Get Smart!?”.  Well, we aren’t talking about a Hollywood TV prop, but, like the safe learning space that the (awesome) “cone of silence” was designed to create, building a comfort zone means working with the environment around us to create a positive and, most importantly, educational, experience. And unlike Maxwell Smart’s device, I’ve found a much simpler approach that actually works to achieve the desired outcome!

We all have zones of comfort.  These imaginary force fields around us help dictate our level of ease in social situations, strange environments and when we test new experiences.  Depending on the individual, these zones will vary depending on previous exposure, comfort level, etc. and it is critical to take all factors into account.

Let’s use an example:  Since I work with dogs, sitting on the floor in the middle of 10 full grown canines playing together doesn’t evoke feelings of stress or fear. However, for someone who isn’t used to large dog fests, or only interacted with guard dogs, their perspective on the situation will be totally different.  For someone fearful of canines, such a situation could be so overwhelming that they might shut-down and glean nothing positive from the experience or not even be able to remove themselves from the environment because they are so overwhelmed.  Some dog trainers like to call this “the red zone.”  For the human analogy, we can say this person has started the “flight-or-fight” response.  This response, also known as the acute stress response, is when the sympathetic nervous system responds to the physical or the strong emotional state that has been presented to the body, coordinating various bodily functions (adrenal gland secretion, pupil dilation, increase heart rate, etc.) in order to create the optimum situation for that individual’s survival (1).

Now imagine the situation where we are beginning to expose a newly adopted canine to various environmental factors.  Maybe that dog had spent its first year locked in a backyard, without environmental enrichment.  Maybe that backyard didn’t even have grass or any trees. Now, when we take that pup out and begin to work through different training scenarios, the environment can become very overwhelming, very quickly.  For this particular example, the canine will enter the “red zone” fast – inhibiting their response to our training programs and damaging their overall personal growth.  Part of my graduate thesis examined this phenomenon, and many examples arose in which increased levels of stress (in particular example it was related to training methodology) directly resulted in a decrease in working ability of canines trained for service (2,3,4).

It is therefore very important as caregivers that we keep our canines’ “zone of comfort” in mind when we are out training and setting out educational experiences for success.  Here are some easy ways to keep this in mind while we are out and about:

One to avoid...

In the “Red” Zone

  1. Keep your dog’s history in mind!
  • If they have had previous negative experiences with something in the environment, their zone for this object/person/dog will be less secure.
  1. Slow and Steady!
  • Fear can be incredibly powerful and debilitating.  We cannot learn when we are in fear for our lives or someone’s well being.  The same goes for canines. Flooding canines emotionally is a very dangerous practice.  Working within what the canine is comfortable with, as slow as it may be, will allow you and your canine to gradually build confidence with that once-scary scenario, and also help you both build a stronger, trusting bond.
  1. Keep it Fun!
  • We always strive to make every situation and experience for canine and caregiver as positive and rewarding as possible.  Success gives everyone a good feeling, and those positive feelings go a long way to help overcome hurdles we encounter and give us further motivation to keep going.

Canines By Design is here for you!  Contact us today to see how our customized approach can help you and your canine work together and create success everyone can see!

1. TheFreeDictionary.com (Medical Dictionary) (2015).  Fight-or-Flight Reaction Definition.  Retrieved from: http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/fight-or-flight+reaction.  Accessed on: July 22. 2015.

2. Hilby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., & Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004).  Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behavior and welfare.  Anim. Welfare, 13: 63-69.

3. Haverbeke, A., Laporte, B., Depiereux, E., Giffroy, J.M., & Diederich, C. (2008). Training methods of military dog handlers and their effects on the team’s performance.  Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 113: 110-122.

4. Haverbeke, A., Messaoudi, F., Depiereux, E., Stevens, M., Giffroy, J.M, & Diederich, C. (2010).  Efficiency of working dogs undergoing a new human familiarization and training program.  J. Vet. Behav., 5: 112-119.

Spear Grass Alert! It’s Getting Crispy Out There!

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Spear GrassSummer weather is here!  Sun, blue sky, warm days… so hopefully that means you and your dog are spending lots of time outside together. It also means taking precautions with the sun, hydration and the heat; all are topics that are getting lots of media play right now.

I also want to bring attention to a more… herbaceous… factor of playing around in the great outdoors that could be harmful for your pup: Spear grass. For those of you reading this in California, I’m talking about Foxtail grass. In fact, during my travels I have found that these grasses have become known by a few different names: porcupine grass, needle grass, silver spike grass, and all refer to wild grass with barbed seeds that often look similar to wheat.

It has been a hot and dry year out West so far and these are the conditions that spear grasses pose the biggest risk. It’s a problem that’s small in size but mighty in impact. The little seeds that are attached to these grasses, specifically the barbs that are found on the seedpods, can cause serious damage and even require surgery when they dry out during the summer season. These barbs work just like a porcupines barbs. Once the dermal layer, or skin has been penetrated, there is only one way for the seedpod to go, and that is deeper into the body.

This design is not uncommon in the plant world. Plants have developed multiple ingenious ways to have their seeds transported by animals and Mother Nature. Unfortunately, once a spear grass seedpod has entered the dermal layer, the body recognizes it as a foreign body and mounts an inflammatory response around it.

For a canine, critical areas of contact are also the areas most prone to picking up these grass seeds. Feet, nose, mouth, ears and genitals are all areas that need to be monitored. The penetration of spear grass and subsequent inflammatory response can result in the manifestation of a variety of symptoms. Locally, one will notice small areas that become swollen, red and infected, causing extreme itching. This inflammatory response can result in your canine acting lame if their paws are affected, extreme head shaking, licking, yelping and rubbing to the point of rubbing themselves raw with itchy frustration. Some seedpods can bury deep enough that they cannot be found. Those found could form abscesses that, when removed, require a drain in order for proper healing to occur. Very often, removal of spear grasses or foxtails will require that the animal be sedated and, even after removal, complications from the seed’s initial presence can cause lasting problems (e.g. deafness from seed penetrating membrane in ear canal).

The solution to the problem is not to avoid the outdoors during the dry months of the summer when the grasses harden off and produce these seedpods, but rather regular inspection of your dog before and after outings. By performing a body check beforehand, we have a baseline for our post-outing inspection.

Here is what you should be looking at:

  1. Ears, eyes, the spaces between toes and mouth all need extra attention and are to be carefully inspected as these are the highest risk places for contact and can have the fastest and largest negative impact if seedpods are left there.
  2. It is also important to brush out your canines fur to make sure it hasn’t picked up any seedpods that could work their way down to the skin.
  3. When you brush your canine’s teeth, make sure you check their tongue, gums and jowls for any foreign bodies or signs of irritation.
  4. Carefully (and with help if needed) trim the fur between their pads to decrease the chance that grasses can be picked up.
  5. KNOW what grows around you. There are different types of spear grasses that look quite different. Some grow in different regions. Ask your veterinarian what you should be aware of in your area. Greenhouses and nurseries are also a great place to get plant information to help narrow your searches!
  6. Set Up For Success. If the field is 95% spear grass, spend the extra 10-15 minutes moving to the next best location.

The extra time spent on these few steps can help make sure you and your canine have a safe and enjoyable summer, and minimize the stress of unplanned veterinarian trips and seeing your loved one in pain. Don’t be afraid, be prepared!

Foxtail