Friday, February 20, 2015

What's the Prognosis

One of the hardest parts of working in the Behavior field is confronting the question “so do you think I should put him down?”

When an owner arrives for their appointment, we realize that many are coming as their last resort. They’ve tried what worked for their last dog, suggestions from friends, spent time with trainers, spoken to their veterinarian and now they’re taking one last shot with us. From each past effort there’s been peaks of hope and plummets of despair, and now they’re frustrated, angry, sad, lost and hopefully still interested in trying again in a new direction. The owner who has a dangerous dog is the most likely to ask “Is this fixable? Am I a bad person for giving up? Should I give up? Would it be better if I find him a new home?”

These are all valid questions that we take seriously. We never make the decision for our client. Instead we give a clear picture of the dog that they have in order to determine if they’re willing to commit to trying again. 

The first step is to explain what is concerning in the situation. A large dog is inherently more dangerous than a small one due to the amount of damage that can be done. Does the dog have readily identifiable triggers that we can work on, or is it more generalized? Is the behavior based in fear or confidence? Has the pet hurt someone before? Where does the family reside and how high is the threat to the public? What has the owner tried before? Is the owner’s home life a problem (elderly people who can’t get away, exposure to children, etc.)? Can the dog be safely managed by the owner? Is the human-animal bond broken? Is owner willing to make the changes and sacrifices necessary to help their pet while providing safety for their family and the pubic? That’s a lot of questions, but all of them are important to give the owner a prognosis for the issue at hand.

With this information in mind, our job is to support the owner as they wade through the pros and cons, feeling and fears to get to a decision. As a service, we support owners in the decision to euthanize their pet if it poses a danger. Some would find euthanasia of an otherwise healthy animal repugnant. The thing is - the pet isn’t perfectly healthy. Mentally, this pet is not doing well. Many of these dogs have equal parts of nature and nurture creating a perfect storm for bad things. The owner may not be the right person to take on this project, and it’s our hope that if they do decide to euthanize then at least they may avoid making the same mistakes with future pets. Is it fair for the dog? Probably not, but warehousing the pet for the rest of its life isn’t exactly a kind fate either. Rehoming is typically irresponsible in these situations. As much as I would love to have the perfect owner pop up to whisk the dog away, finding someone with the knowledge and ability to adopt an aggressive dog is like winning the lottery. We’ve seen rescues which adopt out dogs with a history of aggression problems and it creates a rehoming nightmare. The dog is bounced from home to home, breaking hearts (of the owners and pet) until someone decides to pulls the plug. 

Euthanasia is permanent. Ending a life is never easy for any veterinarian, and we’re no exception. As it is, our service euthanizes a dog about every 6 months. It’s our hope that owners keep this information in mind when deciding to adopt a pet. Do your research, socialize and train your dog,  and if things seem to be going badly, the best way to avoid euthanasia is to seek out professional help early.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

An Ode to the Non-Retractable Leash

If there’s one seemingly innocuous item I could eliminate from the Earth, it would be retractable leashes. These leashes are popular with owners who love the freedom it affords their pet. Indeed, the dog can jet ahead, trail behind, sniff or eliminate without causing a break in pace for the owner. Additionally, retractable leashes aren't as cumbersome as carrying a long-line. Over all, it would seem like a dream come true. I know many people who love these leashes so much that to take it away, you’d have to pry it from their cold dead hand. There can be advantages if the leash is used by a conscientious owner who understands its inappropriate use, and can judge whether their pet should be walked on one at all.

Though the lead itself seems benign, the design lends itself to becoming a mobile razor wire and tripping hazard all in one. This is no joke! I have long suggested retracto-leads as a James Bond weapon. If you look at the packaging, you’ll see a sticker or packaging alerting you to the danger of cuts, burns and finger amputation. It can cause bodily injury due to falls caused by tripping or wrapping up in the line. Additionally, if your pet breaks the lead, there’s a danger of face or eye injury. Oh yes, it sounds like you’re playing with a bright shiny chainsaw rather than a dog leash. In fact, the danger is so severe that labels state, “avoid using around small children”.

Besides the ghastly injuries that they cause, I hate them due to the way people use them. If you have a dog that pulls, a retractable leash only teaches your dog to be more effective at pulling. When an owner notes the dog is harshly gasping against the pressure of its collar, they often opt for a body harness. You know—the ones they use for sled dogs. Nothing like a good tractor pull! Far worse is the owner who combines the retractable with a choke or prong collar, since the dog will be constantly correcting itself while pulling for more lead. Mind you, most people miss the warning on the device stating it isn't to be used with “disobedient or uncontrollable” dogs.

If you’re enjoying your walk with your dog romping around 10-25 feet away, it makes it difficult to keep track of what’s going on. At the park, it’s not uncommon to see owners talking to a friend while their dog is off leaving a fecal calling card in the distance – with the owner totally unaware. They may also not notice that their pet is running in between people, tying a kid to a tree or rushing someone else’s dog. In the case of the latter, the leash may fly out of the owner’s hand and the line could break or cause damage to the other dog when the line is retracted. I especially hate these leashes in a veterinary setting. On a regular basis an owner would be at the front desk, while their dog wandered across the room, relieving itself on a plant or harassing a poor cat stuck in a carrier.

Speaking of control, the “brake” button is a great source of false security. I often call it the “pause” button. Cheap ones have a hard time engaging and must be held down manually, while more “deluxe” models have an integrated lock which is a pain to engage. The brake gives a false sense of security since it takes time to engage, and by that time your dog has covered a lot of ground. The brake on the leash is just like the brake on your car – it’s only helpful if engaged at the appropriate moment…which is tough from a distance.

All of this being said, I remind myself: training tools can be helpful when properly utilized. They aren't “bad” on their own. It just appears that the wonders of retractable leash attract all the wrong people.