How Do I Choose A Good Dog Trainer?

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Dog mortarboard

Finding the right dog trainer can be the difference between success and bigger problems. Choose carefully!

Many of the dog owners I see in practice have been to obedience classes or worked with a trainer on a specific behavioral problem in their dogs. When the form they submit lists the trainer(s) they’ve used, I always find out everything I can about those trainers. Why? Because the owners probably listened to the advice given and the dogs were treated by these people. This can affect the dog’s current problems.

Some trainers are absolutely wonderful. They know dogs and dog owners. They have both innate and trained skills that allow them to target their training to specific needs. They understand learning theory, socialization, and public health. And they’re passionate about what they do.

Some trainers are not wonderful. They support the use of abusive techniques that were in practice in the early half of the 20th Century. They eschew treats as “spoiling” the dogs. They will claim they can solve any behavior problem. They tell the owners what medications they should demand from their vets. They often have no actual training of their own – they call themselves “naturals.”

Many, many trainers are somewhere in between.

So, understanding the trainer and her philosophy tells me if there are any “red flags” in a dog’s past training I should explore during the appointment.

I think it’s very important for all dog owners to know how to choose the right trainer for themselves and their dogs, should the need or desire arise. Use these simple guidelines and the right trainer should be within your reach:

  1. Do a basic Internet search for all the trainers in your area. If you live in a large metro area, you will scale back the search geographically or by Yelp review. If you’re rural, you may not be able to be picky about geographic distance from you. Please note, many training “chains” will advertise themselves in areas they do not even serve. The first thing you should look for in a candidate website is the actual service area.
  2. Look at the credentials of the 5-10 trainers you want to explore. Ideally, you will see letters like CPDT-KA or KPA-CPT. Dog training has no licensing, therefore, you want to search out trainers who demonstrate that they are continuing their education and following best practices in their field. Trainers who display Certified Professional Dog Trainer or Karen Pryor Academy credentials are demonstrating their willingness to have their knowledge and techniques judged by a body of experts in the field. Other training programs, like the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers, offer well-respected training courses but no national certification. It’s nice, too, if they joined the Association of Pet Dog trainers – but anyone can join and there is not assessment of knowledge or skills.
  3. Read up on each trainer’s philosophy. Some buzzwords you should know are:
  • Balanced Training. This term refers to the “balanced” use of reinforcement (treats, praise) for good behaviors and punishment (leash corrections, other “unpleasant” stimuli) for unwanted behaviors. Its use has increased with the popularity of Cesar Millan; and, like Millan’s methods, owners are to use a “firm hand” when correcting their dogs. The problem is that owners are notoriously bad at timing and choosing appropriate punishments. So, these methods exacerbate aggression and break down the relationship between the dog and the owner. What they typically don’t do is correct a behavior problem.
  • Remote Training. This means using a shock collar. Period.
  • Pack Leader/Alpha Training. Some misguided trainers still think of pet dogs as “pack” animals. Modern research negates this idea and modern training does not rely on it. Those trainers that want you to be “alpha” to your dog or the “pack leader” are likely to get you bit.
  • Protection Training. Did you adopt a Police dog? If not, please stay as far away from “protection” training as possible. Your precious poodle does not need to bite on command. But, neither does your Belgian Malinois.
  • Schutzhund Training. Like protection training, Schutzhund is used to train Police dogs. It can also be for search and rescue, basic obedience, odor detection, etc. The bottom line, though, is that most Schutzhund trainers still use aversive training methods. The time requirements and legal responsibilities of owning a dog that is trained to bite can also be prohibitive.

    A good trainer should be able to explain her training methods and philosophy in an understandable way. She should be able to demonstrate techniques in a way that owners can understand and copy. A good trainer should make an owner and their dog feel safe, welcome, and capable.

  1. Ask to visit a class conducted by a few of the trainers that interest you. If the trainer says “no,” drop that trainer from the list. If you like what you see in that class, look at schedules, fees, and other factors to choose the one that’s a best fit for you.

Choosing a trainer is a little like choosing and doctor or dentist. You want to know the schooling, philosophy, and “bedside manner” of your candidates before you commit. Ideally, you and your trainer will have many happy sessions with your increasingly well-behaved dog!


*** Thank you to my friend Nancy Abplanalp, CPDT, for her input!! ***


Why is My Dog Afraid of the Wind?

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Wind storm

Wind can trigger panic in some dogs, often taking owners by surprise.

I recently had a case of a dog that tried to escape the owners’ house or yard whenever the wind picked up. They live in Marin County, so there are several windy days per year. Any time there was more than a stiff breeze, one of the owners needed to rush home and make sure the dog was safe; usually that meant working from home for the rest of the day. These owners had that luxury – most don’t.

So, how did this happen? As in most cases of phobic responses to the wind, it didn’t start out as a fear of the wind at all. In this case, the dog was afraid of rain/thunderstorms and became very afraid during a recent rain storm. The owners were home and saw him looking for a good place in the house to hide. When he couldn’t find a place that made him feel better, he tried to break out of the house. These fairly savvy owners helped the dog find an interior closet and played white noise for him. Together, they weathered the storm and the dog seemed no worse for the experience… until the next big winds.

The owners were not expecting wind to be a big trigger for their dog, as is never had been before. But, the bad rain storm he experienced had big winds as a component; and the dog had become sensitized to the sounds. And, if you think about it, wind comes with many loud sounds. Beyond the whine and whistle of the wind itself, there are the sounds of garden items falling over, neighbors’ garbage cans rolling down the street, tree branches cracking and falling, and windows shaking during particularly strong gusts.

In this case, the diagnosis was straightforward: Storm phobia with sensitivity to wind. The progression seemed apparent to the owners once it was pointed out: He generalized his fear of thunderstorms to include rain, which always (in California) accompanies thunder. Then, since this rain storm was very windy, he generalized to include wind. Other problems to rule out would be generalized anxiety, noise phobia, and severe attention-seeking behavior. Noise and storm phobia differ from each other in the fact that storms are more than just the sounds that accompany them; some dogs are very sensitive to drops in atmospheric pressure, rapid ionization changes during lightning strikes, and the feel of wind and rain on their bodies. Noise phobic dogs are triggered mainly by the sounds themselves (usually lightning, fireworks, gun shots, and engines).

Treatment for phobia of the wind can vary, depending on other components of the phobia (thunder, etc.). In this case, it consisted mainly of desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) to the sounds of wind and thunder and medications to aid the process of DS/CC in this scared dog. Other options include relaxation protocols to train a calm response on command, nutraceuticals like l-theanine or a dog appeasing pheromone collar, or a tight wrap made for anxious dogs. The medication selected for this case was fluoxetine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, to be given every day. For days when wind was expected to be a problem, the dog was also given a benzodiazepine, which is a very potent and fast-acting (but short duration) inhibitor of anxiety; the most common of these in human medicine are Valium and Xanax.

In this case, treatment seems to be going pretty well and the owners are less panicked when they see wind in the weather forecast. If your dog, or one you know, is afraid of wind (or other facets of storms), please seek help from a veterinarian.

Why Does My Dog Bark?

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Whether it’s “just a breed thing” or there is some other cause, excessive barking can be stressful for the dog’s owners.

I recently had a case of a dog that barks excessively when the owner prepares to leave and while she is gone. The woman adopted the dog a few months ago and he started barking a month later. The neighbors in her condo complex are not overly pleased by this turn of events.

Barking is a normal means of communication among dogs. Humans can be the target of the communication, too, as we seem to respond very readily to it. In fact, studies have shown that the average human, when presented with the recordings of several types of dog barks (fearful/anxious, territorial, excited, begging, etc.), can accurately deduce the meaning.

Like so many other behaviors, excessive barking is generally a symptom of a larger problem, rather than an isolated problem behavior. Underlying causes can be anxiety, boredom, breed predisposition, something learned from another dog, attention seeking, etc. So, while many “solutions” have been developed, few of them work because they fail to ask and address the question, “Why is the dog barking?” A few popular no-bark “solutions” are anti-bark collars (citronella, shock, etc.), ultrasonic anti-bark devices, spray bottles, cans of pennies, and debarking surgery.

Why Dogs Bark

The reasons for barking and excessive barking are quite varied. “Acceptable” barking occurs as a warning of possible intruders or other dire situation, a brief invitation to come out and play (toward another dog or human), an expression of enjoyment during play, and a warning to approaching unfamiliar dogs that a fierce carnivore lives here. Although these barks sound different from each other (the forceful three-bark alarm when someone’s at the door vs. the high pitched excitement bark during play). But, what they have in common is that they are brief and transient, as the dog moves on to other behaviors.

The reasons dogs bark excessively are related to – but separate from – those listed above. These include:

  • Breed. I’m sorry to break it to you Beagle owners, but your dog will likely bark excessively. This is equally true of Cockers, Collies, Dachshunds, tiny terriers (Yorkie/Silky), Shelties, Dalmatians, and Miniature Schnauzers. It doesn’t mean that their barking cannot be controlled – just that it may be far more challenging.
  • Anxiety (Separation Anxiety/Noise Phobia/Confinement Anxiety). This type of barking occurs when the owners are not present; and these dogs desperately do not want to be alone. They are panicking, and use their voices to reach out to someone who might be able to help. The bark is often high-pitched, plaintive, and interspersed with whines.
  • Barrier Frustration. You’re in the house and your dog is outside (or vice versa); if this is a situation that upsets him, you may find that he barks until you are back together. This is separate and distinct from separation anxiety, in that, if you left the house completely, he’d be fine.
  • Boredom/Social Isolation. The bored or isolated dog spends a lot of time asking if there’s anyone out there, or answering similar calls from other bored dogs. The bark is usually a friendly invitation, but can be very insistent and frequent.
  • Social Facilitation. Some dogs bark excessively when they hear other dogs barking. We’ve all heard this – a dog walks into the neighborhood and all the dogs start barking, even though only one or two can actually see the “intruder” dog.
  • Territoriality. The territorial dog barks aggressively, often in a low pitch with growling, when a person or dog approaches or walks past the house. The barking is not a simple courtesy warning to the owner; rather, it continues until after the person leaves. The challenge here is that the delivery person/meter reader/passerby always DOES leave, consistently rewarding the dog for his efforts; don’t underestimate how rewarding this can be. And, however fierce these dogs sound, many of them are acting out of fear of the approaching stranger(s).
  • Response to Environmental Stimuli. Technically, territorial dog fit this category – but not all dogs responding to something/someone outside are trying to chase them away. Consider, for instance, dog that has seen a tree full of squirrels or the neighbor cat and can’t stop talking about it. These dogs are generally of a personality that finds many things exciting throughout the day.
  • Attention Seeking. These dogs bark to get the attention of their owners (usually) or other people who are consistently nearby (neighbors, for instance). This is the moral equivalent to the 5 year old child standing in front of his harried mother at the grocery store saying, “Mom, mom, mom, mom…” repeatedly. Dogs develop this kind of barking because they have been rewarded for it in the past, often by being scolded or yelled at; but, in their minds, any attention is good attention and yelling is good enough for them. This type of barking happens only in the presence of the owners or other human targets of the attention seeking.
  • Habit/Conditioned. Some dogs were raised in environments in which any amount of barking was perfectly acceptable (like a shelter) but now live in settings in which it is not (like a suburban neighborhood). Other dogs always go nuts when they hear the door bell or other specific noise stimulus.
  • Compulsive. Some dogs develop compulsive behaviors like tail chasing, light chasing, or fly biting. Others display their compulsivity through barking. These barking episodes are likely to happen whether or not the owner is home and are generally very unemotional and monotone in nature.
  • Old-Age-Related. Senior dogs suffering from cognitive dysfunction (a dementia-like condition) can bark constantly as one clinical sign of their cognitive decline. These dogs bark in a fairly monotonous way with no trigger at all. They sometimes cannot be aroused from their barking and are as likely to bark with or without the owner present.

Because barking is the primary means for dogs to communicate, you may guess that this list is not exhaustive.

How to Fix It

General Treatments

There are as many treatment plans as there are causes of excessive barking. Here are five general things that apply to all barking cases:

  • Identify the cause(s). You can treat what you haven’t diagnosed. See a specialist if you are truly stumped.
  • Don’t directly punish barking. Yelling or throwing a can full of pennies will not curb this behavior; and it may make things worse by exacerbating fear, rewarding attention-seeking, creating even more excitement, or triggering aggression.
  • Ignore attention seeking behaviors, including barking. Any attention is a reward and will encourage the behavior in the future.
  • Use a leadership program like Nothing in Life is Free or Learn-to-Earn to provide consistency and enhance your dog’s interest in listening to commands. To get the general idea, please see or
  • Make sure your dog has plenty to do, especially if you’re gone all day. Employ a doggy day care or dog walker, leave food toys filled with his breakfast, and make long walks and play time a priority.
  • Reward alternative behaviors. When your dog becomes quiet, praise him. When your dog walks away from something that usually makes him bark, praise him.

Specific Treatments

While these things should help in most situations, dogs with specific barking problems will need more:

  • Anxious dogs may need the support of a tool, like a dog-appeasing pheromone collar, diffuser, or spray; others may require medication.
  • Dogs that bark at people or animals outside the house may benefit from you blocking their access to those stimuli. You can use fences, opaque temporary window film, white noise machines, and other tools to avoid your dog being exposed to those triggers.
  • Dogs that bark mainly when the owners are home may benefit from being taught a “quiet” command. There are lots of web sites that show you how to do this. Some start with teaching a “speak” command while others don’t. Please don’t follow any protocol for teaching “quiet” that involves punishment or anything else aversive. One good choice comes from The Humane Society of the United States:
  • In some cases, if absolutely no anxiety is involved in the barking, the owners might try an automatic bark collar. The first trial should be something mildly aversive but not painful (citronella, canned air, etc.). If that does not work, the next level up is the automatic shock collar. There is always a risk with using a shock collar and this risk increases dramatically if any anxiety is involved. Anxious dogs exposed to shock may become more anxious. This can lead to more barking – or some other unwanted behavior, not to mention needless anguish for the dog.
  • If the dog is terribly anxious, medication and behavior modification is probably the best plan. This will be overseen by a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.

Many treatment plans will include more than one of these options.

Obviously, this is not meant to be a complete summary of the treatments available for dogs that bark excessively. Also, it is not meant to encourage dog owners to refrain from seeking veterinary care, diagnoses, and advice regarding these issues. But, knowing a bit more about why your dog may be barking can help you ask more informed questions during that vet visit.


Why Does My Dog Dig?

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You need to find out why a dog digs to stop him from digging

Someone recently asked me why her German Shepherd was digging holes in her garden. Surprisingly, I don’t hear a lot of complaints about digging, either because it’s the least of the worries of the clients I see or because people assume “it’s what dogs do.” But, here’s essentially what I told her:Until you figure out why your dog is digging, it is not easy to stop him. It’s surprising to me the number of punishment-based strategies out there to stop digging without removing the dog’s desire to dig. You might be advised to bury things like balloons, rocks, or mousetraps in the holes as booby traps. You might be told to fill the hole with water and hold your dog’s head in it until he fears for his life (no kidding) or even bury the dog himself in it. You might be told you need to build a fence or other barrier to keep the dog out of the garden. You may even be advised to use a shock collar any time you see him digging. Not surprisingly, these things are unlikely to resolve the problem permanently, as the dog will fulfill his desire to dig in some other way.There are many reasons, including:

To cool off or warm up. The ground maintains temperature better than air; so even a few inches below the surface, the earth is cooler in hot summer months and warmer in cold winter months. Dogs that are left out in these conditions may seek out something more comfortable than the air temperature.

To get some exercise. Dogs that do not get enough exercise through walks or play may burn off this energy and use their muscles by digging. This is especially true of very active breeds whose owners underestimate their dogs’ needs.

To get away. Dogs with separation anxiety or noise phobias can panic and try very hard to get out of the yard (toward people/comfort). The holes are usually near a fence or gate and often toward a neighbor’s house, where the dog feels he might be safe. Other signs may be damage to the fence/gate itself.

To get to something he wants. This could be a tree full of squirrels, gophers in your lawn/garden, the neighbor cat/dog, or any number of other things the dog finds attractive or wishes to neutralize. Again, the holes are usually directed toward a fence or gate in the region of the thing attracting the dog. You may even find holes close to the house if your dog is frequently relegated to the outdoors while you are in the house.

To bury his treasures. Some dogs seem to feel they can’t leave their toys, sticks, or bones above ground in case someone finds them. Suspect this if every hole has signs of something special in it.

This is not an exhaustive list and some dogs probably fall into multiple categories.

How to Fix It

You’ve probably guessed that this depends on the cause. If your dog has separation anxiety or noise phobias, get to your vet ASAP and get it treated. If the outdoor temperature is a problem, consider keeping the dog in the house more during extremes of hot and cold. If the dog is very energetic, commit to exhausting him at doggy day care, on longer walks, or through frequent play dates with other dogs. If he buries every treasure, give him only things that are not easily buried (little treats, food toys secured to something, etc.). If he is intrigued by things in the neighborhood, you may wish to confine him to the house, as the squirrels, neighbor dog, and school kids are beyond your ability to control. If he’s just trying to get in the house to be with you, find a way to let that happen. Finally, if your dog is truly a recreational digger (with no basic psychological need left unmet), you may set aside a spot in the garden that is your dog’s “digging box.” The area should have the loosest soil in the yard and plenty of shade to attract him there. Then he can dig to his heart’s content.

All that said, there will be some extreme dogs that cannot be deterred from digging for even a few minutes. If yours is one, see your vet to determine whether there is an obsessive quality to the digging and whether medications and a behavior plan might be the best solution.

If you have a digger, try not to be terribly frustrated. Sit down with the family to discuss what you know about when and where he digs.  Then solve the problem permanently by helping your dog meet his needs in other ways.

Stop Punishing Your Dog!

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If punishment doesn’t work, why is it so popular?

I find myself having to tell at least one dog owner every week that part of the prescribed behavior modification plan is to avoid all forms of punishment. Why? Because these owners, frustrated by their dog’s behavior problem, and not feeling they have many other resources, are turning to aversive methods in an attempt to solve the problem.

For me, punishment means: yelling, scolding, hitting/kicking, kneeing, neck/side jabs, using a shock collar, repeated corrections with a prong or choke collar, or pinning the dog to the ground (the “alpha roll” or “dominance down”). Sadly, this is by no means the full extent of the punishment the extreme owner will have applied. But this is a list of the most common punishments I hear about.

So, why do I ask that people stop punishing their dogs? For one thing, it hasn’t helped or they wouldn’t be coming to me to solve the problem. Second, humans are not particularly good at choosing or delivering punishment. Third, punishment doesn’t give the dog a clue how you would like him to behave in a similar situation. Fourth, it’s pretty dangerous, especially in those dogs presenting for aggression.

My first point is pretty self explanatory. “I see that you’ve been using a shock collar on Fluffy for two years, Mr. Smith. How’s that been working for you?”

My second point, that humans are terrible at punishing, is based on learning theory. For punishment to reduce the incidence of an unwanted behavior, it must have three characteristics: it must be suitable (the punishment should fit the crime); it must be immediate (during, or within a second or two after, the unwanted behavior); and it must be applied consistently. But we’re humans. Consistency is definitely not a hallmark of our species. As for immediacy, I regularly meet owners that punish their dogs for things that were done while they were at work. And, it’s really difficult to come up with a punishment that’s appropriate; some lovely 1950s-style choices come to mind: “rub his nose in it;” “hit him with a rolled-up newspaper;” “pinch his muzzle until he drops it.” Sigh.

My third point, that punishment doesn’t tell the dog what to do, comes primarily from seeing the effect of punishment on growling in dogs. Many of my clients whose dogs have bitten people complain that their dog gives no warning, so they feel they can’t readily prevent the bite. I always ask if there was ever a time the dog did growl. Some say no. But the majority of people say that the dog used to growl when he was younger. What did they do when he would growl? Most would yell or otherwise punish the dog. So, the dog learned that growling was not acceptable; in these cases, the punishment worked. Unfortunately, the dog still feels fearful/territorial/irritable/other and wishes that the dog/person causing this feeling would go away. But he knows not to growl. So he bites.

I like to say that behavior does not like a vacuum: if you tell your dog no about his current behavior, you leave it up to him to choose a replacement behavior; and he may pick one you don’t like – like biting. But, if you ask him to do this instead of that, you have chosen the alternative for him. Example: “Rover, sit” is better then “No!!” when a dog is jumping on people. In the case of the dog that growls, the actual solution lies in changing the dog’s feeling about the object of his aggression (helping him not feel fearful/territorial/irritable/other) and giving him a more acceptable behavior to perform. In the meantime, every owner should listen when his dog growls and separate the dog from the object of his aggression. This ensures everyone’s safety.

On my fourth point, that punishment can be dangerous: There was a very interesting study a few years ago by Ilana Reisner, Meghan Herron, and Frances Shofer of the University of Pennsylvania that questioned dog owners about “behavior modification techniques” they had tried before seeking the help of a veterinary behaviorist. The survey asked the owners to choose from a list of possible “interventions” used, to give the source of each selected intervention (owner’s own idea, a trainer, etc.), and to describe the dog’s response. The researchers found that and hitting/kicking and growling at the dog elicited aggressive responses in nearly half of the dogs on which they were attempted. And, alpha rolls/dominance downs and prolonged staring caused nearly 1/3 of the dogs to become aggressive toward the owners.

It’s likely that many of these very aversive techniques come from the misperception that the owner must assert his “dominance” to get his dog to obey. But, your dog “misbehaving” has nothing to do with either you not being forceful enough or him “challenging” you. Rather, it may be from a lack of real leadership on your part; or your dog may have fear/anxiety that must be addressed before he can comfortably obey your commands in a challenging setting.

The bottom line is: if good leadership (in the form of a program like Nothing in Life is Free or learn to Earn) is not sufficient to correct your dog’s behavior problem, find a qualified professional to help. If you turn to a trainer, be diligent in checking qualifications and philosophy (after all, it’s no better to have a trainer punish your pet). If your dog is fearful, and medications may be in his future, see your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.

A Note About Bark Collars. On one hand, bark collars appear to fit the definition of an effective punishment: the shock/spray is immediate and consistent, and some would argue that the aversive stimulus is appropriate. The question that is often overlooked is whether a dog should be punished for barking in the first place. In my professional opinion, barking is rarely controlled through punishment and should not be on a list of “punishable offenses.”

There are many, many reasons for a dog to bark: he may be issuing a warning; soliciting attention from people or other dogs; expressing his fear, pain, or boredom; engaging in a breed-specific social behavior (think Beagles); protecting his territory; etc. Punishment alone can exacerbate fear and pain and does nothing to alleviate any other cause of barking. Rather, if a dog is barking excessively, it is important to determine his motivation and correct this underlying cause. Fearful dogs must be treated for their fears. Bored dogs should go to doggy day care when their owners are at work. Beagle owners and their neighbors should get used to the sound of barking. Medical causes should be addressed.

Herron, ME, Shofer, FS, Reisner, I (2009), Survey of the use of outcomes of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. (117)47-54

Euthanasia: When it’s Time to Say Goodbye


The loss of a pet is hard. It is often made worse when we're faced with the decision to euthanize.

For me, one of the most challenging things about being a pet owner is the almost inevitable decision about when to euthanize the pet. We recently faced that very decision about one of our cats. She was a few short months shy of her 24th birthday; so, it was not a decision that took us by surprise. But, even as prepared as we thought we were, it was very difficult.

How will I know when it’s time?

This question haunts most pet owners. And, my best advice is to have a set of criteria for each pet species you have that reflects the minimum standards for an acceptable quality of life. For instance, you might expect your cat to be interested in eating, make it pretty consistently to the litter box, get around on its own, and seek out attention and purr when petted. In fact, those were our exact criteria for Chantal. For a horse, dog, or parrot, your criteria may be different. Each criterion should reflect some measurable aspect of welfare (comfort, adequate nourishment and hydration, acceptable hygiene, etc.).

Choose your criteria when your pet is young and healthy, so that you will not be tempted to ignore changes to “protect” an ailing pet.

Once you have set the criteria, any consistent drop below the standard in a given category will raise a red flag. For us, Chantal starting missing the litter box daily and began to be ataxic (stumbling) while walking around; both problems may have been due to worsening arthritis, a failing nervous system, systemic weakness, or some other process. In any event, we knew we had reached a decision point.

What will I do when it’s time?

When your pet reaches a quality of life you can no longer pretend is adequate, it is likely time to say goodbye. The most responsible plan of action is to schedule a “euthanasia consultation” with your vet; during this consult, your veterinarian will examine your pet, offer you any possible treatments for the problems you have noted, and, if nothing can (or should) be done, euthanize your pet. Relevant family members should attend this appointment in the event that it does, in fact, become an actual euthanasia. On the other hand, I have had a few clients book these appointments, braced for grief, only to leave with some antibiotics or fluid therapy for their very-much-alive pet.

What is euthanasia like and who should be there?

If you’ve never been present for the euthanasia of a pet and think you would like to be present for the next one, it’s a good idea to know what to expect.

When you arrive for the appointment, there will be a release form to sign and a discussion about what you would like done with your pet’s remains. Options generally include private cremation and group cremation; other options, like home burial, may be available in your municipality. You may take care of the payment in advance so that you will not be bothered with it after the pet is gone.

You and your pet will be taken into an exam room or a special room designated for euthanasia. A technician or the vet will get a weight and may do a brief exam. Following any discussion about whether continued treatments are possible or advisable, the staff may prepare for the euthanasia. Some clinics require a catheter to be placed in a leg vein to facilitate the process; others may not. Depending on how nervous your pet appears, staff may elect to give a sedative and give you a few minutes alone with your pet for the medication to take effect.

The actual euthanasia is performed using a strong sedative given in an amount that stops body functions. The veterinarian will have pre-measured the amount to be given based on your pet’s weight. He or she will give the drug slowly while you hold or pet the animal. During this process, your pet may make sudden movements, lose control of his bladder or bowels, or simply go limp. Even if unexpected movements do occur, the pet is not experiencing any discomfort. This is procedure is far more painful for the human participants than for the pet, who drifts gently away.

As for the question of who should be present: that depends on you, your family, and your support system. If your kids are old enough that they can understand what is happening and not be traumatized by the event, they may want to be there. If you have developed special relationships with clinic staff, you may wish to ask them to join you (in fact, if your pet has become a frequent patient, many of the staff may ask to be there with/for you). If you know you will be grieving extensively, you may wish to have a friend with you for the ride home.

What if I can’t bring myself to be present?

That’s fine. Your pet will pass just as smoothly without you. And, if you are someone who would be tortured by the memories of the event, he would rather not put you through that, anyway.

How will I react to my loss?

Depending on your personality, you may respond with anything from a little sadness to acute grief when your pet has gone. For pets that required extensive amounts of care, you may experience some relief at their passing; this is normal.

If you had a very intense attachment to the pet or are someone who naturally grieves deeply, the loss may be very difficult for you. There are pet loss support groups available to help you through your grief, if friends and family are not sufficient. The reality is that you may continue to experience and process your grief for months or even several years. If, at any time, you feel despondent, please seek professional help.

How we move on

As my husband likes to point out, “It all ends badly.” So how do you pick up the pieces and commit to yet another pet, knowing that this, too, will end badly? Again, we each approach it differently. Some people decide they’d rather not invest emotionally in another pet. Others are looking for a new furry friend right away. Then, there are those of us in the middle – knowing we’re a little worse for wear but also knowing that some other wonderful pet will find its way into our lives and hearts when the time is right.

Whatever type of person you are, one of the single most important things to keep in mind about euthanasia is that it is something we elect to do because we love our pets and want what’s best for them. Some people worry that they are rushing into an irreversible decision, when, in fact, our love for our pets and reluctance to lose them causes us to wait far longer than we should. One look at Chantal on her last day would have shown you what I mean.

Why is my Brachycephalic Dog Having Trouble Breathing?

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Brachycephalic dogs can require special care to keep their breathing normal and healthy

I recently saw an English Bulldog as a patient. Despite the fact that I was treating him for generalized anxiety, the biggest challenge in the exam room was hearing the owner over the dog’s noisy breathing. Loud or difficult breathing is very common in a number of breeds that fall into the “brachycephalic,” or “short-headed,” category, which include the English Bulldog, French Bulldog, Boston Terrier, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Lhasa Apso, Shih Tzu, Pug, and Pekinese.

In fact, there is a medical condition named for this phenomenon: Brachycephalic Syndrome. Dogs that suffer from this condition often present to their veterinarians with stertor (a snoring sound while breathing), stridor (a high-pitched sound associated with breathing obstructions), shortness of breath or exercise intolerance, aspiration pneumonia, difficulty sleeping, or open-mouthed breathing. The number and severity of the issues can vary among individuals and over time for the same individual. The average age of onset of breathing problems is 3 years; and these problems often worsen with age.


When a brachycephalic dog is presented to the veterinarian for loud or labored breathing, the vet will begin to look for one or more of four physical anomalies that each contribute to the breathing issues and determine its severity. Anomalies include (from tip of nose to back of throat):

  • Stenotic nares. The two nostrils are narrower and droopier than in other dogs; this means that less air can enter the body with each breath.
  • Elongated soft palate. In these dogs, the soft palate can extend inches beyond where it should, allowing it to hang into the back of the mouth and partially block the air from reaching the trachea.
  • Everted laryngeal saccules. These saccules, which sit near the back of the throat, usually exist as pouches that invert into the sides of the mouth; if everted, they are inside-out and project into the airway, further interfering with air passage to the trachea.
  • Hypoplastic trachea. In some brachycephalic dogs, the trachea is narrower than one would expect for a similarly sized dog. This means that, even when the air negotiates the other obstacles, less of it can travel each breath into the lungs to provide oxygen to the body.

Some veterinarians maintain that collapse of the cartilage of the larynx or trachea may also contribute to brachycephalic syndrome; but we will limit our discussion to the four elements listed above.

Although it’s possible to identify the more superficial problems during a routine exam, general anesthesia or deep sedation is often required for a complete exam. X-rays of the chest may help to see tracheal narrowing and aspiration pneumonia.

Aside from the everted saccules, these anomalies are congenital, meaning that the dog is born with them. Most dogs diagnosed with brachycephalic syndrome have more than one of these problems; some unlucky dogs have all four.


Oxygen therapy and anti-inflammatory doses of steroids can provide short-term relief of breathing problems in these dogs. Long-term relief requires surgical intervention. In the case of stenotic nares, the openings of the nostrils can be made larger and any extra tissue removed. Elongated soft palates can be trimmed to a more typical length. Everted saccules can be removed. Sadly, nothing can be done surgically to enhance a narrow trachea.

For some severely affected dogs, these surgical corrections may not provide sufficient relief, and the dog may continue to have difficulty getting enough oxygen. In those cases, the dog may require a permanent tracheostomy, which is a hole in the trachea that is sutured open to provide an unobstructed airway to the lungs. Permanent tracheostomies carry serious risks, including increased threat of foreign-body inhalation and almost-certain drowning if the dog ever decides to submerge itself in water.


Most preventative measures need to happen before adopting a dog:

  • First, determine whether a brachycephalic breed is right for you. However cute you may think your aunt’s French Bulldog is, you need to be prepared to deal with possible breathing problems.
  • Then, find a breeder that carefully chooses sires and dams that are minimally affected; this is a challenge, given the relatively late onset and progressive nature of the problem, paired with a tendency of breeders to mate younger dogs.
  • Once you have adopted the puppy, accustom him to a walking harness, so that no undue pressure is placed on his trachea when he pulls against his leash.
  • Walk your dog during the mildest temperatures of the day and monitor carefully for panting and shortness of breath. The irony is that laryngeal saccule and cartilage problems appear to be exacerbated by harsh breathing, which is the very condition they cause; minimizing exercise when the weather is hot or humid can also minimize breathing difficulties in the first place.
  • Keep your dog lean. Excess weight puts an extra strain on an over-taxed respiratory system.

If, despite precautions, breathing problems do arise, seek veterinary assistance sooner rather than later.

One thing I get asked a lot is whether changing breed standards would correct this problem; my answer is, “I don’t know.” While there is no doubt that breeding for the extreme short noses of the affected breeds is directly responsible for the physical changes that cause brachycephalic syndrome, it’s not clear whether changing breed standards for the these breeds would actually lead to reversal of these problem traits. As far as I can tell, a push toward ethical breeding of only those individuals that appear to be free of problems and neutering of affected individuals is the current plan.

For those owners whose dogs are suffering from this condition, or those wishing to see images of the anomalies and surgical corrections, please see

Why is My Dog Such a Wreck When I Leave?

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Lately, the cases that have really got my attention are the dogs that destroy the house or hurt themselves when the owners leave. These dogs have been suffering from a condition called separation anxiety. I have had several severe cases lately and am beginning to think it’s more common of a problem than I imagined.

Clinical Signs: Some owners report that they come home to damaged doorways, carpets, plants, or furniture. Some find that their dog has started defecating in the house. Others tell of finding their pacing and panting dog (and parts of their home) covered in drool; in fact one dog’s constant drool caused the metal covers on the floor vents to rust. Others get complaints from the neighbors that their dog barks or cries the entire time they’re gone. In the most severe cases, the dog will do anything to break out of the house, crate, or kennel; these dogs break teeth, scrape their muzzles, break glass, and, sometimes, get hit by cars when their escape attempts are successful.

In many cases, the dog does not wait until the owners leave to become anxious. The owner’s routine of preparing to leave, including showering, getting dressed, or picking up briefcase or keys, can start the panic. Some dogs will refuse breakfast on days they know the owner will leave. Others will follow the owner around, whining. Still others withdraw and cannot be coaxed into interactions.

Cause: Separation anxiety can have a gradual onset as the dog matures – or can flare up suddenly. Sometimes owners can point to a specific experience, like someone moving out or a unusually loud event, that appeared to trigger the problem. In reality, however, the overwhelming majority of these dogs have always been somewhat anxious, whether or not the anxiety was noticeable. The core reason for their anxiety is, as always, some combination of genetics and experience. Anxious puppies often grow to be anxious dogs. But, not all anxious dogs were anxious puppies.

It is also important to note that dogs that suffer from separation anxiety have a greater-than-average chance of developing noise sensitivities or phobias. This can be limited to the classic triggers, like thunder or fireworks. But, owners also report fearful reactions to power tools, crackling fires, food processors, and other everyday sounds in their dogs with separation anxiety.

Diagnosis: The determination that a dog has separation anxiety is made based on history and, if possible, a video recording of the dog while the owners are not home. Other possibilities for destruction, barking, defecation, and other signs of mild separation anxiety can be attributed to boredom (especially in an energetic or focused breed of dog), illness, incomplete housetraining, or a reaction to loud or arousing stimuli outside the house. But, if the video shows a dog that is pacing, panting, vocalizing, or being destructive immediately after the owner leaves and for some significant percentage of the time the owner is gone, separation anxiety is diagnosed.

Treatment: Unless the clinical signs are very mild, the patient requires medication in addition to behavior modification. There are two medications currently licensed for dogs with separation anxiety; the first is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (akin to Prozac) and the other is a tricyclic antidepressant. Clinical trials show improvement of over 60% of dogs on each of these medications. If one medication does not work in a given dog, the other might. In the case where neither drug has the desired effect, a veterinarian can prescribe similar human medications not actually licensed for dogs in an off-label fashion. Unwanted effects of these medications are usually mild, and include GI upset and reduced appetite.

The big downside of these medications is that they can take 3-8 weeks to take full effect. In the meantime, the owner has a destructive mess of a dog that they feel they can’t leave alone. There are several possible strategies for bridging the gap until medications can help. First, the dog can go do doggie daycare or a friend’s house when the owner leaves. Second, the owner can try working from home for a few weeks. Finally, the dog can be given a short-acting medication in the same class as Valium and Xanax. In some dogs, however, these medications cause increased agitation and cannot be used; in others, they allow the dog to be calm and relaxed when the owners are gone.

In addition to (not in place of) medications, the owner can use other calming agents. These may include a dog appeasing pheromone collar or room diffuser, lavender, anxiety wraps, calming music, etc.

Once the right combination of medication and other tools is identified, and the dog becomes calmer, the owners can begin the work of behavior modification. This can include:

  • teaching the dog to be more comfortable being away from the owners when they are home (how can you expect to leave the house when your dog won’t let you go to the bathroom without him?)
  • desensitizing the dog to cues that the owner is leaving
  • desensitizing the dog to the owner leaving for increasing periods of time (starting with seconds, working up to minutes, before attempting hours.

If the dog also suffers from noise phobias, he can be desensitized to those, as well.

With proper diagnosis and treatment, many dogs will improve. Some will need to remain on medications indefinitely; but the owners prefer this to the terrible situation that existed before treatment.

Separation anxiety in any form should be taken very seriously. Mild cases can progress. Severe cases can be life threatening. All cases are extremely disruptive for the owners, who typically feel some combination of anger, resentment, guilt, and fear for their pet. Proper diagnosis, by a licensed veterinarian that has experience with separation anxiety, is crucial to solving the problem.

Why Are my Two Dogs Fighting?


Two household dogs fighting can be very stressful for owners

I recently saw a very interesting case of two dogs in the household fighting with each other. The older dog is 5 years old and the owner has had him since he was 10 weeks old. The younger dog is 13 months old and has lived with the owner since he was 4 months old. According to the owner, the younger dog began to attack the older one about 4 months ago. Over a short time, the attacks increased in frequency to several times a day and were so upsetting to the owner that she explored the possibility of re-homing the younger dog. She saw our appointment as his last chance to stay in her family.

There are many reasons one dog may attack or be aggressive toward another: He may be guarding a very valuable resource (rawhide, toy, etc.) and think the other dog wants it. He may be of a breed that has been selected for dog aggression. He may have been poorly socialized to dogs. He may have had bad prior experiences with this particular dog.

But, for two dogs that live in the same house, the most common type of aggression is called “Dominance-Status Aggression” (DSA), also sometimes called “sibling rivalry.” In this setting, the dogs know each other well, and get along very well much of the time. Generally one dog is consistently the aggressor and the fights/attacks happen most commonly when the owner is present. Other possibilities for two household dogs fighting include pain/injury, illness, territorial aggression, or maternal aggression.

So, what causes DSA and what can be done about it?

Causes of DSA.

Usually, the owner is the cause. It is over-simplistic to say this; but, the reality is that the average dog owner will often completely ignore his dogs’ social hierarchy and attempt to impose what he believes to be equitable. This leads to tension between the dogs, which then leads to aggression when the owner is present.

What does it mean for dogs to develop a hierarchy? Speaking generally, dogs have a flexible but fairly strong social structure, in which one dog is the most dominant, followed by a more subordinate dog, then the next most subordinate, and so on. If you are watching a group of dogs that know each other well, you will see which one has easiest access to the best resources (toys, treats, lounging spaces, etc.); this is typically the most dominant dog in the group. The dog that most willingly gives up resources is generally the most subordinate. The others fall in line in the middle. This is a gross generalization (and some very subordinate dogs will fight for certain resources); but the principle is reliable.

Unfortunately, owners have their own sense of fairness. Usually, they give the older, more frail, or most beloved dog the best of the resources and the most attention, regardless of his status in the group. This is a perfectly human thing to do. Yet, if the owner chooses to lavish attention and resources on a less dominant dog, the more dominant dog may feel compelled to put the favored dog in its place, through growling, biting, or other aggressive act. The owner, who generally responds negatively (yelling, scolding, or other form of punishment) to the aggressor, may increase his attention on the attacked dog, thus escalating the problem.

What about two dogs that start fighting suddenly after having been “fine” with each other for months. If a younger subordinate dog is becoming socially mature or a previously-dominant dog is failing in health, there may be the opportunity for a shuffle in the dominance hierarchy. If the owner inadvertently lavishes attention on the wrong dog, there can be aggression as a result.

It should be noted that not all dominant dogs care enough to interfere with the owner’s interactions with the other dog.

Treatment of DSA.

Often, treatment is as simple as correctly identifying the dominant dog and supporting him as such. This is accomplished by giving him the most attention, providing him with better resources (nearer the owner on the bed or sofa, first access to the house or yard, etc.), and asking for less “work” (aka fewer commands) before giving him things. If the dominant dog has to sit for his dinner, the other dog must sit and shake paws before the food dish touches the ground. If a battle does break out, owners should leave the room, as their presence is typically required to fuel the conflict. Under no circumstances should either dog be punished for his actions.

If one or more of the dogs is unneutered, surgical intervention in the form of spaying or neutering can also help relieve some tension.

Owners are occasionally resistant to these changes, because they have been favoring the subordinate dog for a reason. But, when they see the difference their actions can make to the stress level in the house, they usually come around. They also get creative about spending quality time with their favored pet without the other being aware.

Challenging Cases.

Dominance within the hierarchy is determined by some combination of health, age, size, sex, and overall confidence. But, what if you have two dogs of the same sex from the same litter? You have two dogs that are likely equal in most factors that determine hierarchy. As they come to social maturity, one of three things may happen: If they are pretty mellow, they may never establish an obvious hierarchy and be perfectly willing to share the lead. If one cares more than the other, he may simply declare himself dominant without contention. Or, you may have a situation in which the two dogs spend their adulthood struggling for dominance, possibly without resolution. This is a particularly challenging situation for which there is no simple solution.

My Case

In the case I saw, the owner was amenable to making changes in the way she treated the dogs. She was not excited to reward the “upstart” in favor of her long-time companion. But she saw the merits. She also saw the tension between the two dogs melt away. One month later, the two dogs rarely scuffle and the owner is delighted.

Aural Hematomas in the Dog and Cat


Aural hematomas are puffy pockets of blood

I always thought that aural hematomas (blood pockets in the ear flap) were the curse of floppy-eared dogs. Then I saw one in a German Shepherd Dog. Still, I was sure that these annoying complications were limited to dogs – until I saw one in a cat. So, what causes these big, puffy blood pockets that owners despise so much?

How hematomas form: Many people are familiar with the concept of a blood blister, like the kind you get when you pinch your finger in a door or pair of pliers (or am I the only clumsy one?). Aural hematomas are very similar to these blood blisters. They form when an ear vein is damaged and leaks blood under the skin of the ear flap. The pressure of the blood against the skin causes a pocket to form, which allows more blood to leak from the vein. This vicious cycle continues, sometimes until all available space has been used, leaving the ear very puffy and heavy. At this point, pressure or trauma may cause a small opening in the ear flap, allowing blood to ooze, pour, or otherwise escape into the environment. More typically, however, the owner is able to get the pet veterinary care while the blood is contained. More

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