10 Things I Learned About Dogs in 2021

Dogs have been around us for what seems like forever. We have grown and developed with them by our sides. In these modern times, we live with them as pets; they work with us; we rely on them. We even call them family! And because of this proximity, we often think that we know everything about them. When I take a moment to stop and think back over 2021, it fascinates me to realise how much I have learned about dogs over this last year. It’s a humbling revelation: you think you know all there is to know about dogs, only to have a new insight gob smack me. Some new understanding came through the eyes of experts, whereas other pieces of knowledge were natural revelations. Here are 10 things I have learned:

1- Puppies can be worth more than gold

This year, suddenly puppies were at a premium. Shelters couldn’t keep up with the demand for puppies, and people were adopting adult dogs instead. Which is a good thing. They wanted canine companionship during the pandemic. Some people had never wanted a dog before, citing lack of time, commitment to work and travel, and the general business of their lives as reasons. But with Covid-19 confinement those excuses flew out the window. Now they were at home, and many were all alone. So, they started looking around for puppies. Mini and teacup-sized Poodles, French Bulldogs, Jack Russell Terriers… breeders of small-sized dogs such as these were doubling their prices. But at least you know what you’re getting from a reliable breeder. Many people took the time and patience to do their research. However, many others were buying Border Collies or other in-demand breeds for next to nothing from nefarious breeders announcing on local buy and sell platforms. I think of 2021 and I imagine flying puppies, taking off as soon as they can leave their mother. Now that COVID-19 restrictions have eased, will 2022 be the year for record numbers of abandoned dogs? I sincerely hope not.

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

2- Don’t sterilise them too early

Depending on where you live (or your veterinarian’s or behaviourist’s knowledge base), they may advise you to sterilise your dog from between two months to one and a half years. Certainly, if you adopted from a shelter, your new dog comes to you neutered or spayed. Or you agree to get the job done as soon as possible. I used to think that male dogs, especially the volatile or wacky 9–12-month-old dogs, stood to benefit from a reduction in their hormone levels. And that we should spay females, to make their owners’ lives easier and for the prevention of unwanted litters, soon after their first heat. Turns out I was probably wrong. New studies prove that early sterilisation (early being defined as before 14 months) can cause a higher incidence of behavioural problems. And that sterilisation before their juvenile bodies have time to develop fully means a compromise in their physical health as well.

3-Let dogs sort out their own tiffs

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I used to micro-manage my dogs’ interactions. I’m talking about the six dogs that live in my house, that have been together for years. The five males and one female that share beds, bowls, balls and, of course, my esteemed affection. This “helicopter parenting” is a throwback from an earlier household configuration, when one cherished adopted male became deeply offended at the sudden appearance of a standard poodle puppy. Upon entering adolescence, the poodle took on a “macho” presence, and the race was on. Resentment reigned, battles ensued, and it left us with no alternative but to have the dogs cohabitate under a “one door open, one gate closed” policy. (For the uninitiated, this means you take great care to keep the dogs from ever meeting each other face to face. Not an easy way to live.) So, as a result, I’m wary of dog-dog reactions at close quarters, when shared resources prevail. But early this year I heard the ethologist Roger Abrantes point out that dogs can sort out these interactions on their own; most often than not, one of them backs out of a fight. It’s a case of pure evolutionary survival. I was working at my desk when I heard two medium-sized dogs start a rumble over a coveted bone. Instinctively, I jumped out of my chair. But this time, instead of breaking them apart, I simply observed their interaction. Poodle looked at me as if to say, “Aren’t you going to do something?”. Spanish Water Dog slowly backed away from the bone he’d been trying to steal. Tension reigned, probably because they were waiting for ME to do something. I turned around and walked away, thanking Dr. Abrantes for his wisdom. I haven’t felt the need to intervene since.

Photo by David Taffet on Unsplash

4-A ridiculously lazy, laid-back Labrador Retriever capable of creating mayhem, can be an excellent AD for a child with ASD

I know several crazy Labradors. This one, Kody, is three years old (which in Lab years means he’s barely out of his teens). He’s overly sociable and greets everyone like they’re his long, lost friend. When the person is someone he knows well, he greets them by jumping up and down excitedly; it’s as if he were bouncing on a trampoline. For any 45 kg dog, this is quite an impressive feat, but coming from a slobbery, grinning lab, this greeting elicits a horrified fascination.

But luckily this Lab not only has an “on” button, but he also has a natural propensity to chill. At home, once regulatory greetings or feeding time or tummy scratching sessions have passed, he hunkers down on the floor and snores. As they say, if he weren’t snoring, “there would be no dog at all”.

This “on-off” switch makes him an excellent dog for the family’s little girl, an 11-year-old with ASD. When she musters confidence and interacts with him under her mother’s encouragement, he bounces up from his snooze and waits for her to brush him, stroke him or offer him food. He is the model of patience. Ask him to work, and he activates himself immediately. Be it walking by your side, sitting at crosswalks and streetlights, or biding his time while you shop… he knows what he must do and exercises his tasks to perfection.

This Lab and his little girl will soon gain accreditation as an assistance-dog unit. I can’t wait. But in the meantime, it’s a pleasure to see an impossibly crazy Lab learn the ropes.

5-Dogs learn our language. (But, sadly, we rarely bother to learn theirs.)

Dogs have a million ways of communicating with us. They use a wide variety of facial movements, body language, and vocalisations to let us know how they feel. They have no choice but to express themselves; what you see is what they feel. The problem is, we are total crap at reading these messages. We look at them and see what we want to see. We humanise them, so much you’d think we’re talking about children instead of dogs. That’s why it’s nice to hear stories of dogs going to great lengths to get through to us. The other day, Wendy’s antics amazed her owner. Wendy is a Border Collie-Catalan Sheepdog mix who lives with a woman in her eighties. Wendy loves tennis balls, but like most dogs, she can’t always keep them under control. So Fina has been scooping wayward balls out from under her furniture for 5 years. It usually goes like this: Ball rolls under something out of Wendy’s reach. Wendy stares intently into the void, whines a little, and her body quivers. Eventually, Fina gets the message, pulls out a long shoehorn that sits in a vase, sweeps the floor under the furniture, and dislodges a ball. Sometimes two. The other day, Fina didn’t feel like getting up. Her hips hurt, and she didn’t want to hobble over to the dresser, bend over in search of a ball. She’d cleaned the bedroom that day and was certain there wasn’t a ball there. No sweetie, she said. Are you playing games with me today? Fina told Wendy to give it up already because there was no ball there, and she went back to her book. But Wendy wouldn’t let it go. She stared, she whined, she quivered. Nope. Occasionally, Wendy would go up to Fina and stare at her, in a bid for attention. After repeating this pattern to no avail, Wendy then did something remarkable. She went up to the vase, pulled out the long shoehorn, and brought it over to Fina. This is what you need, she seemed to say. Fina could no longer ignore her; she had to play along. So Fina got up, and with an exaggerated swoosh, slid the shoehorn across the floor under the dresser. To her surprise, a dusty ball rolled out. Wendy grabbed it triumphantly and pranced off. Fina swears she also threw her an ‘I told you so’ look as she walked away.

Photo by Shawn Ho on Unsplash

6-Dogs can break our heart

I called my sister to let her know we had lost our beloved poodle. We had put him to sleep the month before. Sam was 13 years old when he died, which is a good old age for Standard Poodles. Unlike the other dogs in my house, my sister knew our sweet boy personally. I stayed at her house when I flew home to Canada to pick him up from the breeder. And she knew how much he meant to me, how much we’d done together; she’d heard the training stories, had seen the Facebook posts and the photos of our road trips together. My sister had also lost one of her dogs not long before. A nice little cockapoo, about 6 years old. My sister is a tough, stoical cookie. So, I didn’t expect her to cry when she told me about losing little Doogie. “I can’t understand it. It’s not the first time I’ve had to put a dog down. But I just can’t get over it. I guess it’s because I’m getting old.” Wait, hold on, I said. I know just how you feel. Like her, losing Sam had hit me hard, and I knew it would take me years to stop feeling the pain. But neither she nor I were to blame. And no, it has nothing to do with our age. Her Doogie, and my Sam, were what one of my oldest friends calls the “heart dog”, the dogs that wiggle their way into the far reaches of your soul and refuse to leave. The ones that seize your imagination, rendering it impossible for any other canine companion to compete. Those beloved “heart dogs” that can break yours to pieces.

7-Dogs put up with a lot of our crap

Christmas is around the corner. People are hauling out the decorations and scrambling through street markets or big box stores for the perfect tree, dazzling lights and jolly ornaments. It’s festive, cheerful and I love it. What I dread is the growing number of photos of pets that festoon social media platforms. Those cute pictures with Bobby the pointer or Max the cat wearing a red and green snow-scene festooned sweater. Not to mention the headbands with reindeer antlers, Christmas baubles or stars shooting out from the dog’s head. Sitting dog stares at the camera with a sweet baleful look. Snap! And the dog suddenly becomes the laughingstock of Facebook.

I vowed early on never to do that to my dogs; Never have and never will.

However, the other day I met a little black poodle on the street. I vaguely know her people. The weather was brisk, and they had splurged on a new sweater for her. A plucky blue sweater with Doraemon’s face on the back. Doraemon! I love Doraemon. I once had a Doraemon pillow, a Doraemon pencil case, a Doraemon ice crusher… you get the picture. And now here’s his face adorning a poodle, innocently unaware of my laughter. The next day, I got the same sweater for my poodle. Wear it proudly, my boy!

Photo by Anderson Ribeiro on Unsplash

8-Dogs lose their brains when they hit adolescence

Technically, adolescence is the transition from childhood to adulthood. It may have early, middle, and late phases, each phase with its own physical and psychological changes. It occurs from between 6-9 months in males, and 6-16 months in females. Smaller dogs reach adolescence earlier than larger dogs.

Well, that’s what science says, but we all know what adolescence REALLY means. It’s that time of life when your sweet, compliant puppy, once so eager to learn and obey, transforms into a gangly, barking, defiant, rebellious monster that can’t remember a single thing you’ve taught him. It’s painful to experience, and it’s the reason many dogs of that age show up in shelters. Relinquished by people who could not wait out this challenging time. Because that’s what you must do. Practice patience. And give these other strategies for coping a try:

· Recognising and eliminating (if possible) stress factors in the dog’s life.

· Planning any neutering for a later stage, when the dog has gone through physical and psychological changes that come with adolescence. Doing it too early can cause behavioural problems later.

· Give the dog correct exercise for size and physiology—but don’t overdo it! Running around and chasing other dogs, balls etc. may cause more stress-related reactions than good.

· Train your dog. But be sure to train according to their maturity and, above all, train using positive reinforcement methods. Aversive training can have a detrimental effect on their behaviour, as well as weaken the bond you have with your dog.

· Provide enrichment opportunities. Slow walks that allow the dog to observe, smell, walk on different surfaces and heights. Scent work games and/or training.

· Let them sleep. Just like humans, dogs need to sleep comfortably and for long periods of time. Sleep restores the brain and reduces stress. Especially in adolescents.

Photo by Kojirou Sasaki on Unsplash

9-Dogs feel immense disappointment

This occurred to me one evening as we were preparing to go out to dinner with friends. Typically, our dogs get excited when we get up from the desk or the sofa and become more active. What’s up, they think, in anticipation of being included in the next course of events. But, instead of us starting a fun activity, they watch as we become absorbed in the preparation routine. We put on different clothes, shoes, and perfume, ignoring the dogs as we call out to each other, “Got the keys?” “Did you lock the back door?”, “Isn’t my coat back from the cleaners?” While we move about in self-absorbed intent, the dogs recognise a pattern. And slowly their mood dampens. They seem to freeze, eyes reflecting a growing apprehension. Long before I noticed their reactions, they had memorised the routine and knew exactly what was coming next: we were about to go out and leave them all by themselves. It’s hard not to call the look in their eyes, their entire mute reproach, a sign they were feeling let down.

Now for an even sadder story. My older brother passed away recently. He had a heart attack at home, entered the hospital and died a few weeks later. During the first weeks, his faithful herding dog stayed by the front door, expecting him to walk back through the door at any moment. He’d come to her when my sister-in-saw called, but return to his post immediately. Gradually, he began to leave the door for periods of time, but he still seemed to be waiting for a sign. It wasn’t until a few weeks after my brother’s passing that the dog began to seek company by my sister-in-law’s side.

Yes, dogs can feel disappointment—even heartbreak—big time.

Photo by Per Lööv on Unsplash

10-Dogs love (and need) slow walks

When the average person thinks of dogs, they think of action. They picture them running, jumping, chasing balls, or jogging alongside a bicycle. “Dogs need exercise!” they say. “They need to get that energy out of their system.”

Well yes, dogs need exercise. Like people, the “use it or lose it” principal rules. They need to exercise their muscles. They also benefit from getting outside, to let their five senses immerse in the outside world.

But they don’t need to hurry. In fact, they relish in the chance to walk along slowly, nose to the ground, exploring the earth rich with pungent smells. Dogs love to use their noses. They delight in plunging their muzzles into piles of leaves. Or lifting their heads to catch a whiff of other animals’ presence. Changing surfaces beneath their paws stimulates them. They perk up to fresh sounds and avoiding obstacles becomes part of the game.

This year I welcomed this idea. To challenge myself on how much variety I could find within our usual walking time. Some days, I let the dogs lead me. Other days, I steered them towards sources of environmental delights. Parking lots, the proximity of garbage bins, low-slung hedges along pathways frequented by other dogs… these are areas where smells abound. I let the dogs sniff and explore, allowing them to move their bodies loosely in random patterns directed by their noses. And by the time we get home, they are far more relaxed, refreshed and exercised than any brisk walk would achieve.

Shelter Dogs in Animal Assisted Interventions

The original Spanish-language version of this post first appeared in Animales Que Suman. https://animalesquesuman.com/terapia-perros-protectoras/

Maybe you’re taking a course in Animal Assisted Interventions and you’re looking for your future therapy dog. Or you’re volunteering at a shelter full of dogs and it occurs to you that they could work in AAI. In the meantime, you know there are people in nursing homes who would love to have a visit from a friendly dog. A fantastic idea comes to mind – wouldn’t it be great to take a dog from a shelter for a few hours and visit an institution? It can only be a win-win situation, right?

What is the AAI with shelter dogs and how does it work? 

First, a background story: Some time ago, three women contacted our association. They were involved in a therapy dog project, it was going reasonably well, but they had run out of things to do in the sessions. Could we help them with some creative ideas to improve their project? We love helping beginners in AAI, so we agreed to meet.

We went to the meeting armed with a presentation highlighting a myriad of activities adaptable to any AAI session. The activities were tailored to a wide variety of projects and were based on a combination of the handler’s skills with the dog’s character and abilities. Supporting the activity plans was a list of specially created toys, objects, and tools to enrich the sessions. All designed to motivate clients and help the centre’s education or health professional achieve their therapeutic goals, be they cognitive, physical, or emotional.

The women explained that the dogs were not their own, but lived in a shelter. One day a week they would go to the shelter, take three dogs out and visit a nearby nursing home. The nursing home residents were happy to pet the dogs, brush them and throw them a ball. But the encounters were quickly becoming routine, and the women felt the need to liven up the sessions a bit. What could they do, given that the dogs had virtually no skills? Sometimes it was all they could do to keep the dogs calm during the visits.

From their point of view, it was a reasonable question. Disguising our alarm, we questioned them further. Before entering the nursing home, were the dogs bathed or, at the very least, well brushed? Were dirty collars replaced with clean ones? Were the dogs properly exercised before each session? And finally, had the women taken any courses on Animal Assisted Intervention?

The answer to all these questions was no. Seeing that the meeting was much more complex than we had imagined, we asked them to consider other points before we discussed creativity. This led to a lively discussion about hygiene practices, the need for protocols, and the importance of selecting the right dog for visits. We did not have time to delve into such topics as how to ensure the health and well-being of all project participants, so we recommended that the women get some AAI training. 

Shelter dogs and AAI – What does it mean?

The participation of shelter dogs in AAI means that dogs living in shelters or in temporary foster care are actively involved in therapeutic work. On a day-to-day basis the dogs do not have a single person looking out for their interests but are cared for by a network of people.

The dogs meet people living, studying and/or receiving treatment in various institutions, such as hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centers or correctional institutions. As in any AAI project, the encounters are designed to help reach educational, therapeutic, or recreational objectives. Sessions can be as basic as gentle visits that require little action on the part of the dog, activities as simple as brushing, stroking, or playing. Because the dog comes from a shelter, emphasis is often placed on the dog’s unique situation. Many clients are aware that they are helping improve the likelihood that the dog will be adopted.

Within the scope of AAI projects in general, it is an attractive working model, as it fulfills two objectives: the therapeutic or entertainment needs of the client group are enriched. And the dogs get the chance to interact positively with the world at large.

Therefore, the women who consulted us were correct in their original premises:

– Shelter dogs often lead sedentary and boring lives inside. By participating in an AAI project, they are given the opportunity for physical and social contact from people they would otherwise never meet.

– The clients – and especially those living in isolation – can interact with a warm, caring, non-judgmental living being whose principal goal is to be with people. 

– Dogs receive positive features in their profiles: “This dog engages in a positive way with a vulnerable population. “This makes it more attractive in the eyes of prospective adopters.

– The people involved in the project often know the dogs’ history. This helps to create a feeling of empathy towards them. Often, the dogs’ situation mirrors their own and people in confinement, for example, can emotionally identify with the dog’s circumstances.

Shelter Dogs and AAI – Project Types

Shelter dogs participating in AAI projects generally participate within two working models:

– Dogs leave the shelter and visit institutions. A suitable dog may participate on a regular basis – weekly visits, for example. Or there may be a rotation of dogs to give many of them the opportunity to socialise outside the shelter. Dogs are often required to participate in types of activities similar to a dog living with their handler. However, shelter dogs may not have had the opportunity to be trained for their role within AAI activities.

– People come to the shelter in small groups, and sessions take place in or near the shelter. Most often, a dog works with only one participant in the group. Many times, the emotional and physical needs of the dogs are highlighted within the project. Activities may focus on physical contact, play, walks or training, with the goal of improving the dogs’ adoption prospects in mind. There may be a marked structure, like group classes in a dog training school, which offers the human participant the opportunity to learn how to train a dog.

Shelter dogs in AAI projects: are the key elements in place?

When it comes to working with shelter dogs in AAI environments, there are some key ingredients that inevitably fall short of the ideal. This means that handlers must equip the project with special protocols to compensate for the shortcomings: 

The human-dog bond

Unlike a dog that lives as a family member within its handler’s home, a shelter dog does not have a person to serve as a key reference figure. He can and often does form an attachment to the person working with him in the AAI environment, but the quality of this attachment – relative to the demands of their shared task – can come into question. Can the dog feel comfortable working in an intense environment with a person with whom he may or may not have a positive bond?

The question of hygiene

This point is of great importance in any AAI project. All AAI dogs must be healthy, clean, free of parasites and in excellent shape on the day of the session. It is much easier to answer this need when the dog lives with the handler. It is not so easy when the dog is one of many within a shelter, and when its welfare depends on the management structure of the shelter.

In the case of shelter dogs that visit institutions and centres, AAI volunteers may not have time to carefully groom the dog before entering the facility. In addition, the dog may not be feeling very well that day, and without careful observation this may go unnoticed.

Is the dog having a good time?

A competent handler knows when your dog is getting tired of the session. She knows which people she works well with, and which groups are best avoided. (This is why many AAI handlers have more than one working dog). But in the case of shelters, unless they have had the opportunity to get to know the dogs well, they can’t be sure if the dog will thrive and shine in each situation, until they try it.

And, likewise, an AAI handler knows when her dog is feeling stressed. She knows what to do to prevent or alleviate any psychological influence the dog may feel and knows how long it will take her dog to recover from each session. However, shelter dogs are often taken back to the shelter, put in their cage, and left to fend for themselves. Without any decompression activity, they must recuperate on their own.

Shelter Dogs and AAI – Best Practices

– It is possible to create, develop and successfully implement AAI projects with shelter dogs. Selection of the dog(s) is important and involves extensive character testing and experience on the part of the handlers. Even if you do not live with the dog, you should know your working partner well.

– All dogs that come to the institutions must work under strict hygiene and health protocols, whether they come from shelters or live with people full time. There is no excuse for an unclean and possibly unhealthy dog to meet with people who may be in a compromised state of health.

– In the case of people who visit shelters to participate in IAA activities, they are assumed to be in good health and robust enough to spend time in a shelter environment. If not, they should refrain. And even then, the dogs should be clean, free of parasites and well balanced psychologically.

– Whether the dog is visiting an institution or receiving visits by people from an institution, the dog should be well balanced and relatively stress-free. It should have no history of aggression directed at people and should be well socialised. It should enjoy participation and not have to endure excessive stress.

And finally….

What became of the three women who came for a consultation? They left with a new understanding of the complexities of AAI. We were able to provide new creative ideas that resulted in an enriched project. And one of the women signed up for our AAI course, which led her to break new ground in other AAI settings and with a wide range of individuals.