SAFE AT HOME: What Every Pet Owner Needs to Know

By Becky Schultz, CABC, CDBC

Editor’s note: The below article is reprinted with permission from the author and The Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Although the article is intended and written for professional dog trainers, I found it informative for all dog owners to read. Please consult a trainer or contact the association for further information.

Corky the Yorkie lived across the street from me a few years ago, and his story is short but important. He was purchased from a farm by a busy family with small children that probably should have had a stuffed dog instead of a puppy. Their first complaint was that he was probably going to end up being “too big”, and they had really wanted a dog under five pounds. Then the puppy of course jumped up and did some puppy biting with the kids, so they tied him out. He was left unsupervised on the tie-out by the owners, and neighbor kids soon began to entertain themselves by teasing him. My repeated chats with the owners included offers to help train or re-home the dog, but they weren’t interested. When Corky began lunging and snapping at the neighborhood kids, I accurately predicted a bite. For Corky, the story was short, because a few months later he was found dead at the end of his tie-out. They didn’t do an autopsy, but the owner shook her head sadly, and said it was “probably a brain tumor or something, because that dog has always been crazy.”

As a shelter trainer, I’ve certainly been warped by what I’ve seen and heard at work. Every day we see cases of neglect and abuse that would curl your hair and confirm your worst suspicions about humanity’s inhumanity to our most vulnerable companions. Mostly what really impacts me is that, after 12,000 or more years sharing our lives with canines, most people still don’t seem to know very much about them, and frequently this ignorance contributes to dogs ending up in shelters. In a society in which half of all first marriages end in divorce, it shouldn’t surprise us that the surrender rate in puppies is often about the same. Some of the surrender studies have suggested that 10-15% of the pet population ends up in a shelter in any given year, and it’s estimated that veterinarians lose a similar percentage of their practice to behavior-related problems each year. Working as a shelter trainer has given me an inside view of all these issues and changed the way I train dogs forever.

Considering how long we have been co-existing with canines, it’s amazing how much we don’t know as a culture. The average person struggles with the basics, including teaching their pet where to eliminate, what to chew, and how to behave in the house. When there’s a real problem, people rarely use their veterinarian as the intended first-line resource or consult a trainer.

Virtually none of the dogs surrendered to shelters have received any type of formal training, so these are animals that aren’t getting to us as trainers. Either people don’t know we’re here as a resource, or they don’t see what we offer as relevant or salient to their situation. Perhaps we’re not offering what they want? Although pet dog training has shifted the focus away from teaching pretty but useless pre-competition skills like square corners and swing finishes, perhaps we should be teaching other things in addition to the basics of Sit, Down, Stay, and Come. Here’s my list of what every pet owner needs to know and what we can teach them. For every student who comes to classes, there are 4-5 other dog or puppy owners who do not come to class. Our students become their neighborhood and family experts on pet care and training, so we must teach them well.

Pet Selection: This is entirely an education piece and it’s hard to do, because we all know that puppy breath turns your brains to mush! Everyone who ever had a dog (which means they had one when growing up and Mom took care of it) believes they’re an expert, but even people who are trying to do the right thing find themselves unsure about how to get good information. The shelter staff person who talked her 90-year old relative into adopting her foster coonhound puppy, the shelter person who wouldn’t allow a family with small kids to adopt an adolescent Lab because it “might knock them down”, and the breeder who convinced an older couple that their “temple guarding” breed would be great with visiting young grandkids are all guilty of giving out questionable information to people who trusted them.

A prospective puppy buyer may want to work with a breeder, but doesn’t know that puppy-millers also call themselves “breeders” and that there’s a world of difference. They think that “farm-raised” is a plus, and that having someone meet them halfway (for cash) is a nice convenience. The English Bulldog puppy buyer with her heart full of excitement was stunned to find out that the puppy she had bought on the Internet was not a female as promised, but a completely different dog. She was overcome by puppy breath and purchased the male puppy brought to her instead, and months later is still waiting for her AKC papers that will never come. Offers of free pet selection consultation and Pet Parenting classes are a start, but they are notoriously poorly-attended and will reach the people who would do their homework anyway. Pet Fairs or a “Parade of Breeds” event can bring people in for a fun event that can be informative as well as fun. We need to educate ourselves past our own breed prejudices and preferences and look at matching people with a pet that will work for their particular household.

Management: The first thing new pet owners need to know is how to “batten down the hatches” and to use good management tools and practices while they get the training under way. Good management preserves the house and the relationship with a pet, and it does not come naturally to most pet owners. Dog professionals puppy-proof the house and use tools like baby gates, indoor draglines, crates, or exercise pens to save our sanity. But we need to get the message to the pet owners that these are great tools for them, too. Gentle Leaders are wonderful tools to help prevent puppies from learning to pull, to address puppy biting, and to interrupt barking behavior, and in our program, we put them on puppies as young as 8 weeks. The puppy study that was published in JAVMA, “Evaluation of association between retention in the home and attendance at puppy socialization classes”, showed a 94.2% correlation (p value of 0.008) with Gentle Leader use and retention in the home, so we really encourage their use, especially with our puppy owners. Our students hear us chant our mantra, “Never let them practice it wrong—because they get really good at it.

Another critical management issue is the expectation that in our urban and suburban lives we can safely have our dogs off leash and they’ll be okay. Puppy owners are always shocked when their sweet little puppy stops following them around and takes off to explore the world at about five months of age, and we explain to them that the puppy’s eyesight has improved and they are developmentally ready to see more of the world than a younger puppy. They must be ready for this and make sure the puppy is not running loose in a non-secure area. We need to teach them how to systematically teach a recall to their pet, rather than seeing this a moral obligation.

I also include exercise as a management tool, because its judicious use will prevent many behavior problems in dogs, add socialization experiences, and build the relationship with the owner. The mantra, “A tired dog is a good dog!” is so important, and it’s a myth that the backyard will adequately exercise the dog. We try to bust this myth.

Early Socialization: The importance of socializing puppies correctly during their first four months of life just cannot be over-sold. As a shelter worker, I see daily the devastating results of keeping puppies in the barn, garage, or even the house, and isolated from other people, places, and friendly animals. You never get that time back. Most of the dogs that come into our shelter as a “shy/fearful” are not neglected or abused, but were perhaps a “winter puppy” that came home around the holidays, and kept inside during the winter months, missing their optimal socialization period. Mother Nature ensures that they develop caution about things they haven’t seen just about the time that they’re ready to range a little farther from their den, so they will approach and potentially dangerous objects carefully. As a culture we forget that Mother Nature doesn’t design dogs to live in our homes, but to live in the wild, and that has implications for how we live with and train them. Early socialization includes being handled by people other than family members, going to visit new places, and visiting potentially stressful environments like the veterinary clinic. “Social” visits to the clinic should include being petted, getting treats and being handled without getting poked full or holes or lose body parts!

Dog-dog Socialization: Another common gap in pet owners’ socialization is how to adequately socialize their pet to other dogs. Pet owners don’t always recognize that dogs come from “doggy families” and they come to us already knowing how to be dogs, and most of them are very good at it. Most people assume that their resident dog will socialize their new puppy, and what they end up with is a dog that’s only good with the resident dogs. A veterinarian called me about a dog-aggression problem with their youngest dog, their fifth. They thought their other dogs would adequately socialize the new pup. While he was fine with those dogs, he was reactive and petrified around new dogs until we muzzled him up and let him play with other friendly dogs. Fixing reactive behavior is a slow remedial process, and easier to prevent it with adequate socialization in the first four months. We offer additional Puppy Playgroups and a Small Dog Playgroup to our students, and they absolutely love it. Adding play sessions to adult dog classes increases attendance and improves graduation rates. Owners who feel that their pets are having fun at class are less likely to skip class and stay on the couch if they feel they’re depriving Fluffy of a fun night out. Trainers can use the play time to narrate what’s happening, and educate pet owners about normal dog-dog interactions, different play styles, body language and dog behavior. Many people forget that their pet is actually a dog, and they’re afraid to allow Fluffy to interact with other dogs because they’re “afraid of what might happen”. Before working at our shelter, my knowledge of bunnies was limited largely to what I learned from Monty Python’s Killer Rabbit in “The Holy Grail” (“He’ll bite your head clean off!”), but since learning more about their body language, I’m much more comfortable handling them. Pet owners who get a chance to watch normal dog-dog play in a supervised setting often relax, learn to read their dogs, trust other dogs to not turn into Cujo, and can allow them other play experiences.

Separation Anxiety: A major reason for surrendering pets to a shelter is undiagnosed separation anxiety. The typical dog with separation anxiety (SA) is not the dog that is neglected or left alone for ten hours a day, but is more likely the pet that has never learned to be comfortable being left alone in the first place. They are more likely to come from their litters after 12 weeks, to have always lived with another littermate or resident dog, or to live in a home with a human who is home a lot, such as an at-home parent, retired person, or someone who offices at home. If a wild canine puppy is separated from the pack, he’ll distress call and the dam will come and find him. A puppy coming into our homes must learn to exist often as a single pet that stays alone for hours at a time, and we’re essentially “warping” that puppy to ensure that it can function in our human households. Puppies that learn this lesson late or don’t learn it at all, sometimes end up with what we call “separation anxiety”, which is essentially an exaggeration of this normal distress calling, an exacerbation of the panic and anxiety associated with being left alone. Pet owners often think it’s very sweet that their dog wants to be with them all the time, and don’t see a potential problem with a dog that insists on following them into the bathroom.

As trainers, we really need to get information about preventing SA to pet owners, because they don’t know what they are seeing. By the time they surrender the animal to a shelter, pet owners have not recognized that they have a problem until their pet breaks through the thresholds of destructiveness (usually focused on escape, around doors and windows, may come in to a shelter as a “can’t confine”), house-soiling (dog is losing bodily functions, happens in an otherwise well-house-trained animal only in the absence of the owners), or excessive vocalization (too noisy, landlord objects or neighbors report the barking). Until the dog breaks through those major thresholds, many people are completely unaware that their dog is absolutely miserable about being left alone. They may manage it by taking the dog everywhere or stuffing it into a kennel, not recognizing that the dog is in a panic until the dog breaks out of the kennel, soils in the kennel, or refuses to be crated.

As trainers, we need to be able to recognize signs of potential or incipient SA when we get calls about dogs that are barking excessively, having house-soiling accidents, having confinement issues, or being destructive. We need to know what our resources are, and direct these folks to get help sooner rather than later. Once a dog is presented to a shelter with full-blown SA, there is generally nothing that can be done for the dog. If an owner gets help early on, the dog can stay in the home and the prognosis is much better than if they wait.

Nearly every behavior problem can be prevented or resolved easily with early intervention. Early puppy classes keep dogs and puppies in their homes, as do frequent contacts with veterinarians. Issues with adult dogs can still be resolved with our help, but it sometimes takes more time and patience to do the remedial work. Trainers need to recognize that the best “bang for the buck” they have to offer people and their canine companions is to inoculate pets against relinquishment through education and support.

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Becky Schultz, CABC, CDBC, Golden Valley, Minnesota
Ms. Schultz is Coordinator of Animal Training and Behavior Programs for the fifth largest shelter in the U.S., the Animal Humane Society. She runs a training school for the public, and provides behavior consultations for adopters and the general public, trains shelter staff and volunteers, and does public education and speaking. Ms. Schultz also has expertise in cat and other small animal behavior consulting.