- December 2013
- November 2013
- October 2013
- September 2013
- August 2013
- July 2013
- June 2013
- May 2013
- April 2013
- March 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- October 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- July 2012
- June 2012
- May 2012
- April 2012
- March 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- About Us
- Adolescent Dogs
- Advanced Training
- Basic Dog Care
- Basic Training
- Behavior Modification
- Canine Body Language
- Canine Freestyle
- Canine Nosework
- Client's Dogs
- Competition Obedience
- Disc Dog
- Dog Sports
- Dog-Dog Issues
- Fun Stuff
- Health Info
- Instructor's Dogs
- Learning Theory
- Lure Coursing
- Mental Enrichment
- Neat Stuff
- Obedience Tips
- Preventing Behavior Problems
- Puppy Training
- Rally Obedience
- Rally Titles
- Science and Geekery
- Shedd Aquarium Training Class
- Trainer Development
- Training Milestones
- Training Myths
- Treat Recipes
- Trick Training
Our Top Posts
“Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference. Each one of us must take responsibility for our own lives, and above all, show respect and love for living things around us, especially each other.” ~ Jane Goodall
Dominance has become a dirty word in the dog training world – so much so that it’s often referred to as “the D word” by professional trainers when speaking to one another, as if even the mention of it will cause others to gasp in horror and back slowly away. Many normal canine behaviors are thought by the public and by mis- or uninformed canine professionals to be caused by dominance. Certain television celebrities have attributed everything from appeasement gestures such as licking to obsessive light chasing to normal dog behaviors such as excitement on leash or at doorways to dominance. But what does this phrase really mean, and how can we best apply the concept to our interactions with dogs?
Scientifically, “dominance” refers to the outcome of a behavioral interaction between two individuals. The dominant individual is the one who gains priority access to the resource (food, location, female in estrus, etc.) that he or she wants. It is not a personality trait.
This is an important point. Referring to a dog as “dominant” is like saying someone has an “in love” personality. A dog may be dominant over another dog in a specific interaction (such as when they both want the same bone), but may be submissive in the same interaction with a different individual (perhaps with you or with an older dog). You may be in love with a specific person, but hate another. The important point in either case is the context and the individuals involved. While some individuals may be more likely to fall in love easily or to gain access to reinforcers more frequently, each situation needs to be viewed as a distinct event. Social relationships are too complex to make such broad generalizations.
This makes more sense if we think of a human example. Take your family, for instance. When you were younger, your mother or father was probably dominant in most interactions. They (hopefully!) had higher status than you, and could therefore decide how resources (food, attention, sleeping spaces, etc.) were distributed amongst you and the other family members living in the household. But while your father may have had fairly high status in your family group, he may not have held the same status in other interactions, such as at work or in his poker group. In those situations, he may have been submissive in the majority of interactions, with his boss or the host of the poker club getting to decide how resources were allocated. Just because your father was generally dominant in his interactions with you didn’t mean that he had a dominant personality any more than it meant you had a submissive personality as a 5-year-old.
In a group of dogs the hierarchy is likely to shift, just as it does with people. You may generally defer to your boss, but if she comes to dinner at your home she’s likely to defer to you in many social interactions, such as where she sits as the dinner table and what she eats. Dogs are the same way. A dog may generally be the dominant animal when he or she wants something, but that doesn’t mean that this will be true in every single situation.
Dominance as it’s described by most laypeople refers to a set hierarchy, and the more quickly we can drop this notion the better our interactions with our dogs will become. While status is definitely important to dogs, the myth that dogs form rigid social hierarchies is blatantly false. Just like people, dogs tend to have more fluid hierarchies that shift depending on context.
Equally important to understand is how status is achieved. The point of a dominance hierarchy in any species is to avoid conflict. Imagine if you and your boss had to slug it out each time you sat down at a meeting together in order to determine who got to sit behind the big desk. Physical aggression takes a lot of energy and can be dangerous. Whether it’s two dogs biting each other over ownership of a bone or two geese pecking each other over a prime nesting site, actual physical confrontations have a very real risk of injury or death… and no one wants that.
“Dominance” as an excuse to use aggressive behaviors towards our companion dogs, then, is a very inappropriate undertaking, not mention a blatant misunderstanding of the science. When dogs have a conflict, they follow a very ritualized series of signals designed to minimize or avoid physical altercations. These may include staring, stillness, whale eyes, lip lifts, tail wags, and more before the dog even begins to growl, much less to come in physical contact with his or her opponent.
Using dominance as an excuse to touch your dog in any way, including jabs with the hand, kicks, jerking on a collar, forcing your dog onto his or her back, or remotely making contact through an electronic collar is absolutely inappropriate. Status in a stable group (whether human, dog, or elephant) is not about who can be the most aggressive or cause the most damage, but rather about who has the most confidence and experience and can therefore be best trusted.
If you have concerns about your dog’s status, the take-home message here is simple: physical aggression is not the answer. Over the next month, we’ll discuss some of the most common misconceptions about dominance hierarchies, including alpha rollovers and how you can be a great leader to your dog. In the meantime, I’m curious to hear what you think. Have you been using dominance theory incorrectly with your dog? How do you make sure that your dog looks to you as a leader? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!
If dogs talked, one of them would be president by now. Everybody loves dogs.
- Dean Koontz
Up to this point, we’ve discussed many aspects of euthanizing a beloved dog. To review, we’ve talked about making the decision, scheduling the appointment, and what will happen during the process itself. Today I’d like to discuss another important consideration: what happens after your dog is gone, including considerations for those of you with multiple pets.
After your pet is euthanized, you can choose to spend some time with the body if you would like. No vet should ever rush you after your pet has been euthanized, and you can take as long as you need to say goodbye. I spent a few moments sitting with Dobby, then brought my other two dogs out to see his body. If you have other pets, you can decide whether to let them see the body or not.
Remember that animals don’t grieve in the same way we do, so your pets may not appear to notice the body or may not respond to it in a way that looks sad.
Layla took a brief look at Dobby’s body, then flirted with her vet. Since I have done multiple compassion holds (where an unadoptable dog spends their final days or weeks in my home), Layla is very familiar with the process and I believe she understands euthanasia. In the weeks after Dobby was gone, Layla was visibly brighter and more playful – a response I didn’t expect. She appeared to feel a sense of relief that he was gone, which makes sense when we consider that she’d been in essence walking on eggshells around him for the past year so as not to provoke him. Layla started playing with toys again, something she hadn’t done for over a year, and was wiggly and snuggly.
Mischief was very excited and waggy when she came outside. She sniffed all around on the ground and sniffed Dobby’s body, tail wagging. She paused for a brief moment and stiffened up when she got to his face, which she sniffed once with a still tail, then she moved away and started sniffing the ground with her tail wagging again. While this may not have looked very much like grief to us, her behavior in the days following Dobby’s euthanasia was very depressed and she needed a lot of extra reassurance. I do think that she was aware of what had happened. She slept a lot for several weeks after Dobby’s death and asked for a lot of extra snuggles. She seemed especially lost at night, when she would pace and wander. She had previously slept curled up with Dobby, and really seemed to miss her snuggle buddy. Dobby also used to groom her regularly, licking her face and the insides of her ears and nibbling on her neck and shoulders. I invited Mischief to sleep with me, and she would crawl under the covers and curl up by my belly gratefully.
Every dog responds to loss differently, and your dog may show relief like Layla, depression like Mischief, or no change at all. Just like people are very individual in how we cope with grief, so too are dogs. During this time, stick to your dog’s routine as closely as possible and let your dog’s behavior drive your response.
You will get to choose what happens to your euthanized dog’s body. You can keep the body to bury personally, have it buried at a pet cemetery, or choose cremation (either individually or with a group of animals, and with or without the ashes returned to you). I chose to have Dobby’s body cremated individually and will get his ashes back. It can be helpful to think about this decision well in advance.
Remember to take care of yourself afterwards. Allow yourself time to grieve. I was lucky enough to have a boyfriend and a best friend who each took a day off work to spend with me so that I wouldn’t have to be alone afterwards. If you do not have family or friends who are supportive of the grieving process, the ASPCA offers a free pet grief hotline that you can call. Many animal shelters and humane societies also offer pet loss support groups that you could go to.
One topic that often goes unaddressed when a pet dies is the sense of relief you may feel afterwards. I know many pet owners who have felt guilty when they experienced this, especially in the case of a behavioral euthanasia, and want to address it.
While I feel very sad about Dobby’s euthanasia, lonely without his special presence in my life, and a little guilty that his final moments could not be more peaceful, I also feel relieved that it’s over. I would do it again – all of it – in a heartbeat for the chance to be with him again, but I also have to admit that daily life is simply easier without the constant management and care that Dobby required. In his case, the management happened so gradually that I didn’t even realize how very much I was doing to keep him and others safe until I no longer needed to do it. Simple tasks like letting my dogs outside and getting ready to leave for the day are no longer fraught with a list of checks and double-checks that I had to take as a precaution. I no longer have to worry about little things that could cause Dobby to become stressed and therefore have a seizure. I feel like I can breathe easier with him gone, even though at times each breath hurts because I miss him so much.
Feeling this relief doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person or that I didn’t love him like crazy, and if you find yourself feeling this way there’s nothing wrong with you either. Sometimes it’s just as hard to live with our beloved dogs as it is to live without them, and acknowledging this doesn’t make the love we feel for them any less real.
In the end, euthanasia can be one of the kindest things we can do for the dogs we love. I hope that this series has helped you to better understand and prepare for the process with your own beloved companions, or has brought you peace if you have already been through it with a pet. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t ever get easier. Please feel free to share your own experiences with our community in the comments section below. Sharing can be healing, and there’s been a lot of love in the comments this past month.
I’m incredibly grateful that I had the chance to know and love Dobby, my sweet, earnest, special little dog with the lightning-striped legs. I’m also grateful for the chance to get to know your special dogs through your comments. Thanks for the love.
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
- JRR Tolkien
Previously in this series on euthanasia, we’ve discussed making the decision and scheduling an appointment to euthanize your dog. Today I’d like to discuss the procedure itself. Knowing what to expect may make it easier for you to prepare yourself. I understand that this topic is very sensitive and may be upsetting to some people, but strongly feel that knowledge is power. It can be very comforting to have a solid understanding of what will happen and what your dog will feel during his or her final moments.
When your vet euthanizes your dog, they will inject an overdose of a powerful sedative directly into your dog’s vein. This drug will cause the nerves in your dog’s body to stop sending signals (including pain signals) and will slow your dog’s breathing and heart until they eventually stop. Many dogs take a final, deep breath as they pass away. Sometimes dogs will urinate or defecate when they are euthanized due to the total relaxation that happens. If this happens to your dog, it will do so when your dog is no longer aware of what is happening. Euthanasia does not hurt. Afterwards, your dog’s eyes may be open (although the vet can close them if you wish) and his tongue might hang out of his mouth. If your dog’s body is moved, he may appear to burp or sigh as air escapes the lungs.
In many cases, your veterinarian may choose to sedate your dog prior to euthanasia. You can ask your vet to do this if you think it will make the process easier for you or your dog. Sedatives can be given orally by mixing them with your dog’s favorite foods or can be administered via injection into your dog’s leg or back muscles. The sedatives given via injection are more powerful than oral sedatives and will provide more complete relaxation.
In Dobby’s case, we sought advice from his veterinary behaviorist on the best drugs to make the process as easy as possible. I wish that I could tell you that he went peacefully, but to be honest his euthanasia was very difficult. Most dogs who are old or sick pass on quite quietly, but in cases like Dobby where there is a behavioral component to the euthanasia, it is not uncommon for them to overcome all of the sedatives in their system.
Dobby was given a double dose of his anxiety medication, trazodone, the night before his appointment. Three hours before his appointment, he was given another very large dose of this drug – four times the amount he would usually take. In most cases, this would have made him too sleepy to walk, but Dobby was still walking around and carrying his ball when the vet arrived, even though he was quite sleepy. He growled and barked at the vet and was on high alert.
When he was given another sedative via injection into his leg (because he was responding too aggressively for the vet to have a clear shot at his vein), Dobby started to show a lot of seizure activity in the form of head swinging. He also became very sensitive to noises and startled every time I sniffled (not an uncommon side effect of his seizures). At that point he was no longer aware of what was going on around him, so the vet gently injected the euthanasia solution into his vein. I held him close and whispered how much I loved him, telling him he was a good dog and that he didn’t ever have to be scared again, until I felt his body relax. The vet listened to his heart with a stethoscope and confirmed that he was gone.
If you’re preparing to euthanize your dog, remember that you have options. Dobby’s response to the process was extreme, and most dogs do not respond that way. You can choose whether you’d like to be present during the actual euthanasia or not. I personally wanted to be there for Dobby because I knew that my presence would help him feel less afraid. However, if you do not feel like you can be there for your dog that is also okay. Consider talking to your vet about sedation and staying with your pet until he or she is sedated, then leaving the area during the euthanasia itself. You could also ask a friend or family member that your dog knows and likes to take your dog to their final appointment or to stay with your dog while you leave the room.
Again, this is a very personal topic, and everyone deals with death differently. Together, you and your vet can help to make your dog’s final moments as peaceful as possible. Remember that euthanasia does not hurt. In assisting with many euthanasias over my career, I’ve noticed that after a dog is gone there is often a beautiful expression of peace that settles over their face. The pain or stress they’ve been experiencing no longer hangs over them, and it’s those of us who are left behind who have to deal with grief.
If you’ve made this difficult decision, how did your dog’s final moments go? Did you or your vet choose to sedate your dog ahead of time? Please feel free to share your experiences below. I really appreciate the kind and supportive community of dog lovers that follow this blog. There’s a lot of healing going on in the comments after each of these posts, and it’s a wonderful salute to the dogs who’ve brought us here that so many of you have felt willing to share.