“Obesity in dogs is one of the biggest problems. But do you think the dog food companies want to talk about that?”
– Dr. Ray Coppinger
“Obesity in dogs is one of the biggest problems. But do you think the dog food companies want to talk about that?”
– Dr. Ray Coppinger
Howie* was an adorable little teddy bear of a dog. He wiggled as I sunk my hand into his plush, soft, curly fur. A delightful Cavachon, Howie adored people and loved to meet new friends. He sat beside me on the sofa, leaning into my touch. The room was dark other than a single lamp, the curtains not just drawn but clipped shut. Howie’s foster caregivers told me about his obsessions as we sat in the dim room, being careful not to move and throw shadows on the floor. I took notes, pausing occasionally to pet the little dog.
Howie was surrendered to the rescue when his self-injurious behavior became too much for his owners to handle. He was housetrained, friendly to people, and a delight with children. When he arrived at his foster caregiver’s home, he sported an oozing, open wound on his muzzle and nose. Howie was obsessed with lights, and would do anything to try to catch one… including harming himself.
Howie’s obsession started out, as most do, innocently enough. As a young dog with lots of energy, Howie’s owners found that he enjoyed chasing a laser light. They used the light to exercise him at least twice a day and he chased after it delightedly, racing throughout their living room. They sent him up and down stairs after the elusive light, onto the sofa and under the table, around and around until he was tired out. It seemed like the perfect exercise solution on cold Minnesota days when none of them wanted to go outside.
Howie soon began to play the light game even when his owners weren’t using the laser. He stalked shadows and light patterns on the floor, staring intently as he crept forward until he was close enough to pounce. He loved the reflections off his owner’s watch crystals and from the prism in the window. Outside, he was entranced by the movement of the shadows from sunlight shining through the leaves of a tree or birds flying overhead. He no longer sniffed on walks, but instead searched constantly for the next light.
During laser play sessions, Howie’s intensity began to concern his owners. He bit at the carpet where the laser had been and slammed into walls. They threw away the laser and attempted to dissuade him from these dangerous behaviors by putting him in his crate whenever he did them. He persisted, chasing lights and shadows in their home. Soon, Howie was spending the majority of his time in his crate, with a blanket thrown over the top to block out any light.
When he was loose, Howie damaged his owner’s home. He tore chunks out of the carpet and bit at the walls. He broke a front tooth attacking the wall and chipped several others. Soon, he had an open wound on his muzzle that wouldn’t heal from slamming himself into the floor, walls, and furniture in his attempt to catch the lights and shadows that taunted him. Howie’s owners had a new baby, and they were concerned that his behavior put their child at risk. They surrendered him to rescue.
While extreme, Howie’s story isn’t unusual. Light and shadow chasing are some of the most common obsessions found in dogs. All breeds can develop these issues, but those who were bred for strong gazes, such as herding breeds and Pointers, seem to be especially at risk.
Light obsession most frequently develops after owners use a laser pointer to exercise their dog. Unlike toys or treats, lights cannot be caught. This is incredibly frustrating for many dogs, who never “win” the game. Even after you put the light away, many dogs continue to search for the elusive light. Shadow and light chasing behavior can develop soon afterwards.
For this reason, I highly recommend against using a laser light to exercise any dog. It’s impossible to know which dogs will develop issues until they happen, and it’s just not worth the risk. If you do decide to persist in using a laser for exercise, consider having the laser eventually lead your dog to a small pile of treats as you end the game so that he “wins” something. However, complete avoidance of the game is preferable.
If your dog begins to show light or shadow chasing behavior, know that the sooner you intervene, the better the prognosis becomes. Howie’s case was extreme in large part because it had been going on for so long: nearly five years by the time he was surrendered to rescue. Early intervention greatly increases the likelihood that you can help your dog.
If your dog begins chasing lights and shadows, the first thing to do is to increase his physical and mental exercise. Oftentimes this intervention alone can be enough in the early stages. My dog Trout showed this behavior as a young dog, and will occasionally still stare at the wall near lamps if she hasn’t received enough exercise. Whenever your dog begins to obsess, redirect him to an appropriate activity. Trout is usually redirected by physically getting in between her and the wall, then calmly moving her away from the area. Avoid making a big deal over the behavior – both reinforcement in the form of treats or excessive attention, or punishment in the form of any aversive can make this behavior worse. In fact, stress can be a huge factor in many obsessive behaviors, so any intervention that includes aversive consequences for obsessing (such as using an electronic collar or swatting your dog) can greatly increase the chances that your dog will obsess.
If your dog’s obsession has been going on for a long period of time or is so severe that you’re unable to easily interrupt it, it’s worthwhile to discuss medication options with your veterinarian.
Howie’s foster family did just that, starting him on fluoxetine (the generic for Prozac) at the advice of the rescue’s veterinarian. They also began a steady behavioral modification regimen of appropriate exercise, training, and management. Howie wore a Calming Cap when he went on walks to block his ability to search for lights, and was rewarded handsomely for learning several new tricks. His foster family was gradually able to open the curtains, first on cloudy days, then at night, and finally on sunny days. They worked hard with him for months and months, helping him to cope with his former obsession.
Sadly, Howie’s story does not end well. After months of hard and loving work by his foster family, the injury on his muzzle had healed over. He was taken into the vet clinic for dental surgery to repair his damaged front teeth, and stopped breathing during the operation. The veterinarian was unable to revive him.
While Howie’s story was sad, there is a silver lining. He had several months of peace with his foster family, finally free of the light-chasing obsession that had so overpowered his life for so many years. He discovered the joys of using his nose and began to love the sport of nose work. He snuggled and got brushed, and got a chance to wriggle around in the grass and sleep in a bed. He was loved.
If you currently use a laser light to exercise your dog, I urge you to reconsider. While Howie’s story was extreme, it’s not uncommon. I work with obsessive dogs much like Howie regularly. Most of these cases could have been avoided with some minor changes to the dog’s routine. There are better ways to exercise and stimulate your dog. Save your laser light for powerpoint presentations, and you could save your dog from a lifetime of obsession. It’s a fair trade, and Howie would approve.
*Howie’s name and identifying details were changed at the request of his foster family.
Humans and dogs play the same games.
- Denise Fenzi
Enrichment is the act of changing an animal’s environment to encourage species-specific behaviors. The enrichment I provide for my pet gerbils, Wheelie McGerbilface and Silent Bob, consists of opportunities to chew, burrow, dig, climb, nest, and run. The enrichment I provide for Layla and Trout, and for every foster dog who comes through my home, also includes opportunities to chew and run, in addition to sniffing, ripping, and scavenging. These canine-specific behaviors make dogs’ lives with us better. The more opportunities you can provide for your dog to be a dog, the happier and more fulfilled your dog will be.
We often focus very intently on what we want of our dogs, but it’s important to remember that our dogs want things from us too. They want to feel safe from physical and emotional harm. They want to know that their physical needs for warmth, shelter, food, water, touch, and companionship will be met every day. Most of us are very good at providing these things. However, dogs also want to use their brains and bodies in ways that feel good to them, and this is where we sometimes fall short as dog owners.
The things that feel good to dogs are not necessarily things that feel good to us as primates. We like looking at things. Dogs prefer using their noses. We enjoy using our hands to explore our world. Dogs explore their worlds with their teeth and tongue. We like to create new things. Dogs love destroying stuff.
As you figure out how to enrich your dog’s life, remember to focus on the things your dog enjoys. If you’re not sure, try a few different enrichment games throughout the week and watch how your dog responds to each one. Remember that canines are social, predatory scavengers. They have a rich and nuanced language of their own, which they use to communicate with one another. They are also experts at finding (and sometimes catching) food.
The toys that dogs enjoy massage their predatory instincts. Squeaky toys sound just like the death cries of small animals. Ripping apart a plush toy mimics dissecting a furry animal’s corpse, and chasing a rope or ball activates the same part of the brain as chasing a squirrel. Tugging on a toy is much like fighting with a prey animal that’s trying to get away from your dog. Even the seemingly benign Kong has its roots in the dog’s scavenging past; the mechanics of getting peanut butter out of a Kong are strikingly similar to those of licking marrow out of a raw bone. As much as you may wish to see your pet as a furry baby, the truth is that inside every furry face lies the brain of a smart, social survivor. Your dog doesn’t want to be pampered, he wants to be engaged.
So, readers, what enrichment activities do you provide for your dogs? Post your favorites in the comments section below!
Roadwork involves training your dog to trot alongside a bike, golf cart, or other vehicle. Bicycle roadwork is required for the Schutzhund AD (endurance test) for a distance of 12.5 miles, but even dogs who will never compete in Schutzhund may enjoy learning to do roadwork. Roadwork can be a great way to keep up with an active dog who requires lots of physical exercise.
It’s important not to start roadwork until a dog’s growth plates have closed completely (at about 18 months of age for most dogs), and to train the foundation behaviors well before starting for safety. This activity is best for structurally sound dogs who are under good verbal control and do not have any desire to chase vehicles.
First of all, a dog must understand how to walk nicely on leash without pulling. Teach your dog that he only gets to go forward when the leash is slack by stopping every time the leash gets tight.
Next, condition your dog to wear a comfortable harness. This is important for safety, since if either your dog or you should “wipe out” you don’t want him wearing a regular collar and potentially injuring his neck. The harness you select should have a spot for the leash to attach over the dog’s shoulders. No-pull harnesses or other devices aren’t appropriate for roadwork. To get your dog used to wearing the harness, put the harness on prior to feeding meals for about a week, then take it off when your dog is done eating. Begin using it on regular leash walks until your dog is happy and comfortable wearing it.
Finally, teach your dog the “whoa” and “leave it” cues. These are important safety cues.
“Whoa” means “stop immediately.” Start using it on walks by saying “whoa,” then stepping in front of your dog to stop his forward motion. Click and treat when he pauses. Gradually fade how far you need to step in front of him before he stops, until he is stopping on the verbal cue alone. Once he’s reliable with this, introduce the “whoa” cue at higher speeds, such as when you are power-walking, jogging, or running.
“Leave it” means “that’s not your’s” and can be used when your dog shows interest in sniffing, chasing the bunny that just ran across your path, or snatching up some tasty roadkill. “Leave it” is a basic obedience command that is taught in most training programs.
If using a bike, make sure that you wear a helmet. An attachment specifically made to hook your dog to the bike, such as the Springer or WalkyDog, is highly recommended. If using a car or golf cart, choose a sturdy 6′ leash (you’ll have to roll down the driver’s side window if using a car).
Be careful about where you run your dog. Running on pavement is hard on a dog’s joints and can cause his paw pads to become torn or worn away. Dirt or grass is best. Abandoned country roads, flat fields, bike paths, or empty parking lots are all possible places to do roadwork. In the beginning stages, check your dog’s paw pads and toenails regularly for wear and tear, and only work for short distances. Consider when you run your dog as well, paying attention to potentially hazardous weather.
When you first introduce your dog to roadwork, start off slowly. Make sure your dog is running far enough away from your vehicle that his feet are far, far away from the wheels. If he runs too close to you at first, utilize a second person to run alongside him on the opposite side as the vehicle and reward him for maintaining distance. You can even have your helper put him on a second leash if necessary. Dogs should be 4′ – 6′ away from the wheels for any motorized vehicle (such as golf carts).
Your dog’s safety should always be your number one concern, and if your dog ever begins to show any inclination to chase or bite at the wheels, pull on leash, or engage in any other behavior that may be dangerous, it is your responsibility to immediately stop doing roadwork and re-assess your dog’s suitability for this activity.
Dogs love running. However, keep your dog at a trot the majority of the time you are doing roadwork. While it’s okay to occasionally go a bit faster if your pooch enjoys it, trotting is the best speed for safety and conditioning. Make sure to warm him up and cool him down during each session.
For active, well-trained dogs, roadwork can be a lot of fun and is also a great source of conditioning and exercise. My dogs enjoy doing roadwork alongside a bike on local bike paths in the summer, and alongside the car on abandoned dirt roads in the spring and fall.
Have you ever done roadwork with your dog? Share in the comments section below!
We’ve written about how stress impacts your dog, as well as the dangers of chronic stress. But what do you do if your dog finds daily life stressful? How can you reduce your dog’s overall stress level to keep him under threshold?
The first thing to realize if you have a chronically stressed or anxious dog is that your dog cannot help being this way. It doesn’t feel good to always be on edge, and if your dog could develop coping strategies on his own he would have already done so. If this has been an ongoing problem for your dog, he’s not just going to get over it on his own. Chronic stress is both a physical and mental problem, and we need to treat both your dog’s body and his brain to help him overcome it. Today we’ll discuss the first step in helping your dog heal.
Remember that stress causes physical changes in the body, including an elevation in certain hormones that can last two to six days. When I work with a client whose dog is chronically stressed, this is the first area we need to address. Every time your dog has a stress reaction, those hormones spike. This means that one of the first things we need to address is how to avoid or minimize the things that trigger such a response.
For most dogs, we need to temporarily change their environments and routines to avoid common triggers. This could mean changing the time of day you walk your dog, covering or blocking access to your fence or windows so that your dog can’t bark at people or other dogs going past, or avoiding visitors to your home for a period of time. It oftentimes means taking a break from dog training classes or dog sports competitions and avoiding travel. We may need to change your dog’s exercise from exciting ball play to leisurely “sniff walks” on a long leash or increase mental exercise by feeding out of puzzle toys.
Many trainers call this period of trigger avoidance a “cortisol vacation,” referring to one of the common stress hormones. If your dog has been locked in a destructive stress spiral for awhile, it’s going to take time for him to return to a more balanced state: four to six weeks is common for many of my clients.
Many owners worry that their dog will be unhappy during this time, but after about a week of adjustment to the new routine, most dogs appear quite content with their new, calmer way of life. Remember, stress is hard work, and it feels better not to be on edge all the time. Sometimes I need to work with owners to help them learn what a relaxed and happy dog looks like. Some people are so used to seeing their dog in an aroused state that they mistake high arousal and stimulation for happiness, not realizing that their softly napping dog is actually in a better (happier!) place.
While the cortisol vacation is a great place to start for chronically stressed dogs, it’s not a long-term solution. Rather, the goal of this break from life is simply to help the dog find a calmer place from which he’ll be better able to learn new coping strategies. This is a temporary respite from the craziness that he can’t yet deal with. Oftentimes a cortisol vacation is necessary before I can even begin working with a dog, since a dog who is too locked into a destructive stress spiral simply isn’t in a mental state that’s conducive to learning. During this downtime the dog’s owner and I will often start instituting other stress reduction techniques that will be more helpful long-term, as well as visiting with the dog’s veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist to rule out any medical causes for the dog’s behavior.
The important thing to remember here is that this sort of avoidance is temporary and is being put in place with the longer-term goal of helping the dog learn better ways to deal with life. Lifelong avoidance of anything and everything that stresses your dog is neither practical nor helpful, and may do more harm than good as your dog could lose the coping abilities he already has (limited as they may be). We cannot wrap our dogs in a bubble forever, much as we may wish to do so.
In future posts, we’ll discuss other tools to lower your dog’s stress level, as well as ways to teach him to cope with life. Have you ever adopted or worked with a dog who needed time to recover from high levels of stress? When do you think a cortisol vacation could be most helpful for a dog? Please comment below with your thoughts and questions!
Thank you to Lois Stanfield for those wonderful images of Layla lure coursing!
Can you spot what’s wrong with my dog in these pictures (hint: it has to do with her physical appearance)? Answer on Monday!