The following excerpt has been adapted from the Bark For Life canine health and wellness speech presented by professional dog trainer Marc Elias at the American Cancer Society Bark For Life event on May 4, 2014.
Whether we realize it or not, the choices we humans make are constantly affecting the health and wellness of our four-legged children. As a dog trainer and coach, it’s my commitment to help people have the best possible relationship with their furry kids, which involves educating them on how their decisions, big and small, are affecting the relationships with their canine companions. The information I’m sharing here is focused on setting up the basics of a lifestyle that will keep you and your furry child happy and well-adjusted, and set you up for success for a long life together. While there are many considerations as a pet parent, below are a few fundamental tips and tricks that you may find useful.
The most basic consideration is nutrition. Nutrition is a vital element to your dog’s general health and wellness, and even his behavior. It’s important to put the right fuel in your dog’s body to keep him feeling his best, which involves giving him the proper balance in his diet. Dogs like humans need protein, and while many dog food manufacturers use actual meat, the volume or amount in their products is often secondary or even tertiary. To determine how much raw protein your dog is getting, look at the back of the packaging to see the ingredients in his food. If chicken, duck, or another whole meat isn’t listed as the first or second ingredient, you may want to consider adding a protein to your dog’s regular diet. I like to give my Goldendoodle a tablespoon of cooked turkey meat with her regular feedings. Another part of nutrition–and this is something that often goes overlooked–is that your dog needs to consume live enzymes. Live enzymes are vital for your dog’s digestive system and they often play a role in eliminating or minimizing behaviors such as grass eating and even coprophagia, which is when a dog eats feces. Simply put a dollop of plain yogurt or cottage cheese in your dogs food starting with just once a week. If your dog tolerates it without any loose stools consider making it a regular part of his diet 2-3x a week. Taking these actions to ensure your dog is getting a balanced, safe, and nutritious diet can have great effects on his behavior. If you’ve ever been sick you know it can dampen your spirits, and make you grumpy, lazy, or even aggressive. Is it that big of a leap to assume that when your dog is feeling bad he could experience the same thing?
Having a happy, healthy pooch is the first step to having a well behaved one. Another benefit of giving your furry child a good diet he loves is that mealtime is one of the best opportunities to train him. If he is excited to eat a delicious meal, he will be even more eager to work with you. For adult animals who are not undergoing housebreaking training you don’t necessarily need to feed your dog traditionally from a bowl twice a day. In addition to using pieces of food as treats during walks and training, meal time is also great for desensitizing your pup to his triggers. Well planned feedings can help associate a positive value with the very thing that might make your dog anxious, such as skateboards, luggage, bicycles, the sound of bus brakes, the subway, or even other dogs. Desensitization involves feeding your dog in the presence of these triggers. With a simple search using Google or YouTube you can find virtually any sound effect to include in your own desensitization training plan.
Another consideration for maintaining a happy life with your furry child is keeping him tired. A worn out pooch is a happy pooch! And if you tire him out physically and mentally, he is much less likely to get into trouble. A goal is to take your dog on at least a 30 minute walk every day. But many dogs need more stimulation, and particularly for those owners with high energy dogs it can be difficult to commit enough time to give them the exercise they need. One way to give your pup an added challenge is to give him a backpack. It may look silly, but the canine backpack is a great option for optimizing your walks and wearing out your pooch. When using the backpack, however, you should check the manufacturer instructions to ensure you don’t overweight it. Aren’t sure how much activity your pooch is getting? Consider picking up a FitBark. This great device conveniently clips onto your dogs collar to track activity. Think NikeFuel Band but for your dog. Exercise is a necessary part to your dogs overall health and wellness, and it often goes overlooked. The FitBark product is a great tool to know exactly how much exercise your furry child is getting.
For owners who have a little bit more time or who are interested in giving their dogs some added stimulation while giving back to the community, I suggest joining an animal assisted therapy program. The Good Dog Foundation, for instance, provides therapy dog services to people in healthcare, social services, and educational and community facilities in the North East. As an animal assisted therapist you not only feel like a million bucks for enhancing the quality of life of someone in need, but your dog will benefit from the opportunity to socialize and receive a great deal of mental stimulation. This mental stimulation is also a crucial part for keeping your dog happy.
At home, having a couple basic obedience commands in place is a great way to stimulate your dog’s mind. If you’re ambitious you can teach your dog even more commands to stimulate him and you, and strengthen your relationship while having fun. When you’re not home, dog puzzles and chewing items such as rawhides, bully sticks, and toys stuffed with treats or Kongs filled with peanut butter are also a great way to give your dog something to do without you. This is especially important for animals with separation anxiety.
Also in line with mental training and stimulation is socialization for your dog. Giving your dog time with other pups is key to his general health and wellness. You wouldn’t want to spend day in and out for the rest of your life without any access to other humans, would you? So why would your dog want to be alone? If the dog park doesn’t appeal to you, you can put your dog in daycare once a week to give him the chance to spend time with other dogs under supervision. While socialization is important at any age, it’s particularly crucial for puppies 6 to 16 weeks old, which is the most impressionable age for learning and development. When socializing your dog, however, you never want to put him at risk. When walking him on leash it’s best not to assume that just because an owner or dog looks friendly that they are. Always ask if their dog is friendly before approaching for a greeting. If the response is anything other than a confident and direct YES, be wary and watch your dog and the other dog’s body language closely. If either dog seems upset or uncomfortable, it’s best to cut the greeting short. Keeping a loose leash is another important part for these greetings, since a tight leash pulling your dog backwards can send signals to your dog to be apprehensive, fearful or anxious.
Most importantly, if you don’t feel comfortable approaching another owner or dog it’s very likely your dog will pick up on your discomfort, which can prompt a reaction on-leash. If you see a dog that has a yellow ribbon on its collar or leash that’s a signal to give the dog some space. If you’re not familiar with it I suggest you check out the Yellow Dog Project. It’s a movement for owners of dogs that need some room to notify others of their dog’s needs. Having cared for hundreds of pooches in New York City, I have also found that the best leash to use to minimize risk and ensure safety for your dog is a standard nylon 4 foot leash. Retractable leashes pose some unnecessary safety risks. Since they’re so long and hard to see, they can get tangled with other walkers, joggers or cyclists, and other dogs. Additionally, a standard leash gives your dog a cue to where you want him walking: at your side, not 20 feet in front of you. And if any safety risk presents itself, it’s very easy to pull your dog out of harm’s way with a short standard leash. With a retractable leash, it’s almost impossible to quickly pull your dog away from danger.
Lastly, if you have a dog that pulls on walks I would suggest purchasing a harness such as the Easy Walk or Sense-ation harnesses that clip to the front of the dog, at his chest. Harnesses that clip between the shoulder blades often reinforce pulling through a reflex called the opposition reflex, similar to a sled dog. As the summer months are approaching it’s also important to regulate your dog’s temperature. This is especially important for owners of short muzzled dogs who have a reduced ability to cool themselves by panting. Bank ATMs are a perfect pit stop to stay with your dog for a couple minutes to cool down. Dogs also cool themselves through their paw pads, and during the summer the pavement can get as hot as 120°. So whenever possible walk your dog on the shaded side of the street.
Finally, I can’t overlook the neglected dogs in many of our country’s hundreds of animal shelters. For those of you considering adding a pooch to your life, adopting is a great option. You may be surprised to learn that 25% of all shelter animals in the U.S. are purebred. There are even rescue organizations set up for the specific breed that you are looking to welcome into your family. There are roughly 7,000,000 animals entering animal shelters each year, and 60 to 70% of those animals are euthanized. The trainers at Pooch Pals Dog Training commit 20% of their time to providing pro bono dog training services to families of adopted animals. Consider opening up your heart and your home and adopting an animal.