Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas from our gang to yours!!

Marking in the House

Marking in the house can be an obnoxious and frustrating problem.  Scent marking is urination in the house that is not related to an actual physical need to eliminate.  To address this issue, it’s important to understand why dogs scent mark.  You will also need to manage the dog closely while you modify this behavior.

Scent marking is a house breaking issue.  However, dogs that mark in the house generally are not eliminating because they have to go potty but rather to fulfill a social or self-soothing function.  That is, the dog is saying “this is my house” either in an attempt to communicate with a perceived rival or to make themselves feel more comfortable in a stressful situation.

Different dogs mark for different reasons.  For puppies that are raised in the home environment, marking is usually not an issue because it is eliminated during a good house training regime.  Dogs that are neutered prior to adolescence often don’t learn to mark or their urge to mark may be very low.  However, marking may still crop up in response to stress.  Marking frequently needs to be addressed for male dogs that are raised outdoors and then brought into the house later in life, especially those that remain intact well into adulthood.  For these dogs, basic house training may be accomplished fairly quickly but scent marking is a separate established behavior that needs to be addressed.

In many cases, marking is not a day-to-day issue but crops up occasionally in response to stress or changes in the environment.  Changes in routine or the household, moving, or additions or changes within the pack are common stimuli.  Many dogs do not mark in their own home regularly but will mark in a new house or when visiting another house (especially one that has or previously has had dogs) or when another dog is introduced into their home.  Dogs that are insecure, aspire to a higher social standing (alpha-wannabes) or lack well-defined boundaries and leadership in the household may be more likely to mark.  While scent marking is more frequently an issue with male dogs, female dogs can be culprits as well.

Marking usually involves small amount of urination in particular locations compared to urination for elimination.  Marking tends to occur in particular locations – door frames, wall corners and the corner and edges of furniture are all prime locations.  Marking frequently involves the release of only a tiny amount of urine.  This can be a problem because the dog may repeat the behavior many times before you realize there is an issue.  Urination for elimination may be on a flat or vertical (for males) surface but generally involves larger amounts of urine.

If you can’t always determine whether your dog is marking or eliminating, it really doesn’t manner because management is going to be largely the same.  Dogs that mark need to be treated as though they are not housebroken; especially in situations that you know are going to exacerbate their marking.

Steps to take:
1)      Go around the house and clean every spot (or potential spot!) with an enzymatic cleaner.  Remember that marking can involve just a couple of drops of urine.  These spots may be much harder to identify than housebreaking accidents.  Untreated spots will encourage your dog to remark that area.  It will also encourage other dogs in the house to mark that spot.  Pay special attention to vertical corners, walls, doorframes and the edges furniture.

2)      Treat your dog as though he isn’t housetrained, especially in situations that trigger his marking.  Refer to my previous note on housetraining.  The issue with marking is that you need to manage even more carefully than you would during normal housetraining because dogs will mark even when there is no physical imperative to urinate.  In fact, dogs can somehow manage to squeeze out one last drop or two to mark even after they have urinated over and over again.

3)      Look for triggers so you can manage before your dog marks.  Some dogs mark all the time.  These dogs need to be house trained over again.  Other dogs mark only occasionally in response to certain stimuli.  Watch your dog closely so you can manage your dog successfully.

My Ben is great in the house most of the time.  However, I know that Ben will try to mark when a new foster dog is brought into the house or when I take him into a new house that also contains dogs (particularly males).  Knowing Ben’s triggers allows me to manage him before he starts peeing on things.

4)      Manage, manage, manage.  Don’t give your dog opportunities to mark.  Crate him or keep him tethered to you so he can’t mark.  Let him out for short periods of structured free time in the house and watch him like a hawk.  It only takes a couple of unsupervised seconds for a dog to mark, much less time than it takes for a puppy to have an actual accident.  Make sure you take him outside frequently for unrestricted play time during this period since his activity in the house will be very restricted.  This holds true whether he is marking in his own house or marking when you bring him into a new house.

When I bring a new foster dog home, I introduce Ben and the new dog outside first where marking is okay.  Then I crate Ben and the foster dog in the house until they are comfortable with each other and Ben has relaxed.  This process usually takes several weeks.  In the interim, I rotate letting one dog out in the house at a time and supervising them closely.  I also let them spend lots of time together outside getting to know each other.  When I take Ben to a strange house, he stays on leash or crated until he has settled and relaxed in the new environment.

5)      Show him what you want.  With your dog on leash, take him into a managed situation where you know he is going to want to mark (ie., walk him up to a spot in the house that he has frequently marked in the past).  When he starts to sniff the spot, correct him verbally (ah ah or leave it) and when he looks away from the spot to you, give him verbal praise and lead him away from the spot.  Take a little break, and then walk him up to the same or another spot and repeat the process.  When using this technique, make sure you alternate it with taking him outside and allowing him to mark outside on leash.  Give him verbal praise for marking outside.  You want him to learn that peeing in the house is not acceptable but that it is safe and okay to urinate in your presence outside.

I use this technique when introducing Ben to a new house.  I walk around the house with Ben on leash and correct him when he starts to sniff a suspicious spot too eagerly.  My goal is to correct him when he starts to *think* about marking, but before it actually happens.  Once we have checked out the house in a supervised fashion and Ben is starting to relax, I can gradually give him more freedom.

6)      Help your dog to be more relaxed and confident.  Implement a “Nothing in Life is Free” policy in your household.  This program helps insecure dogs to feel more confident, reduces the status of pushy dogs, and provides healthy boundaries and leadership for dogs of all sorts.  If there is major change in your environment (moving, addition of another dog to the pack, changes in your work routine, etc.), try to keep your dog’s routine as consistent as possible.   

Thursday, December 23, 2010

This is How We Roll - Restraining Your Dog in the Car

After Sarah's scary adventure, it should be obvious why restraining your dog in the car is important - for the safety of you, your dogs and the people around you.  Today I want to talk about these issues, your options for restraining your dog in the vehicle and the pros and cons of each option.

A loose dog in the car can cause an accident.  Even a generally well-behaved dog may distract you by getting up, moving around, getting sick or soliciting attention while you are driving.  A more unruly dog may jump on you or obstruct your view if he is excited by a distraction outside the car – another dog, wildlife, moving vehicles.  Your dog may cause an accident that puts you, him and other people on the road at risk.  There have been several recent accidents in the news where a dog distracted his owner while driving resulting in an accident and the injury or death of other people.

Dogs also need to be restrained for their own safety.  In the event of an accident, an unrestrained dog has no protection – just like a person who is not wearing a seatbelt.  Loose dogs can be thrown about the vehicle sustaining injury or even ejected from the vehicle.  Some forms of restraint provide much more protection during an accident than others.  Several companies are now making crash-tested dog seatbelts to help reduce injury during an accident.

In the event of an accident, restraint can also protect your dog after the fact.  In an accident, dogs may become agitated and fearful.  A normally confident dog may escape through an open window or door and run.  This puts him at risk of being hit by a car or lost in an unfamiliar environment.  Additionally, even normally docile dogs may bark or growl at emergency workers after an accident.  This can slow their ability to treat your injuries and may put them at risk.  There has been an increase in the number of cases of police officers shooting dogs that they perceived as posing a threat.  Many restraints will control and protect your dog from these concerns after the accident even if you are incapacitated.

Many dog people need to leave their dog unattended in the vehicle at some point like at trials or other dog events.  Some forms of restraint will keep your dog safely secured while you are away from the car.  Others should only be used while you are supervising your dog.

There are several methods of restraining your dog in the vehicle including crates, seatbelts, barriers, and tethering.  Each method has its advantages and drawbacks when it comes to restraint during and after an accident, ease of use, ability to restrain an unattended dog and cost.  Each method is discussed below but remember that heavy-duty crates and crash-tested seatbelts provide the best protection to the dog in the event of an accident.

A heavy duty crate provides an excellent level of protection in the event of an accident.  Crates must be secured so they can’t move about in the event of an accident.  A crate that is sized for the dog, rather than over-large, will provide a higher level of protection because there is not as much space for him to be thrown around in the crate. 

Provided the crate stays intact through the accident, it will provide a good level of protection after the accident as it keeps the dog safely restrained from running or threatening emergency workers.  Airline or heavy duty wire crates (preferably drop pin) provide the highest level of protection during a crash.  Lightweight crates are more likely to come apart or for the door to pop open upon impact.  In a serious accident, a wire crate may be distorted making it more difficult to get the door open and the dog out in a hurry.   Many people who travel regularly with their dogs will print out any pertinent information (including medical information and who to contact in an emergency) and attach it to the front of the crate. 

Crates provide the additional benefit that they will contain any pet accidents made in the car.  This protects your vehicle and provides an additional level of driver protection from distraction.  People have had accidents while distracted their dog vomiting or eliminating in the vehicle.

Good heavy crates can be cumbersome but lightweight or collapsible fabric crates provide little to no protection in the event of an accident.  I like the heavy duty folding wire crates personally.  Crates work well for people who travel with their dogs regularly and keep the crates set up in the vehicle.  Crates take up a lot more room in the vehicle than seatbelts do but you can also stack other things on top of or around the crates if necessary as long as you ensure that your dog has adequate airflow. 

Crates also provide an excellent means of restraint if you need to leave your dog unattended in the vehicle.  I can leave my dogs crated in the car and safely leave the windows down and the hatch open for good airflow.  Remember to remove your dog’s collar before putting him in the crate since collar tags can get caught in the crate and pose a suffocation hazard.

Good crates can be costly.  The Premier Ultima Three-door folding crate that I like lists at $129 for a 36" crate but you can find it online for about $80.  Costs are higher for larger crates.

When choosing a dog seatbelt, make sure you select a crash-tested model.  Just like children, dogs should be secured in the back seat to protect them from the force of the airbags.  Seatbelts will also keep your dog restrained after an accident.  If you have a fearful or reactive dog, you want to seatbelt him far enough to the back of the vehicle that he will not threaten an emergency worker trying to help you or other human passengers in the event of an accident.

Some of the newer seatbelts double as walking harnesses making potty stops on the road quick and easy.  Some dogs will need a slight adjustment period when getting used to the seatbelt harness.  Dogs that chew will need to be supervised closely or use an alternate form of restraint.

Likewise, seatbelts should not be used when a dog is not being supervised.  If you need to leave your dog unattended for any period of time, you will need an alternate form of restraint.

Good seatbelts aren’t cheap but they are a good investment.  Crash tested seat belts start in the $30-40 range and go up from there.

Barriers can efficiently confine dogs in the passenger compartment but provide limited protection in the event of an accident.  Many barriers are compression mounted and may pop loose during an accident.  Also, if a window is broken during an accident, the dog may jump or be thrown out the window.  Barriers will provide efficient restraint after an accident only if they stay securely in place during the accident.

Barriers can be easy and convenient to use once they are installed.  You will need to select a barrier that is sized for your specific vehicle make and model.  If you have multiple vehicles, you may need to buy separate barriers for each one.

Barriers can be used to restrain your dog while you are away from the vehicle but are not as secure as crate.  Remember that a dog’s collar tags can get caught in a barrier just like they can in a crate and pose a suffocation hazard.

Good barriers aren’t cheap and cheap barriers generally are not very secure.  Inexpensive barriers cost about $50 and the price goes up from there. 

Sometimes I will tether dogs in a pinch.  This technique – tying a dog in one place using a leash on his regular collar or harness – allows me to fit extra dogs in the car during a transport or other tight situation.  However, tethering provides little to no protection in the event of an accident and may actually put the dog at risk due to the force being put on his neck.  If you must tether a dog, try to tether him to a chest harness rather than a collar for this reason.  Tethering to a harness is frequently not an option with rescue dogs since they may chew through the harness.  Some dogs will also chew through their leash.  Tethering will usually keep a dog restrained after an accident unless a dog has slipped his collar or the tether is secured in a door that has popped open.

Tethering is easy and convenient which is why people use it despite the lack of protection provided to the dog.

Tethering may be used to restrain your dog while you are away from the vehicle but you need to be extremely careful.  Dogs can hang themselves by jumping over a seat or out a window.  I know of one woman who tethered her dog thinking he was safely out of reach of the windows in the car.  Somehow he managed to squeeze over a seat and go out the window hind end first which left him hanging outside the car.  Luckily, people nearby saw him and released him before he injured himself but he could have easily suffocated without help.  If you must tether for restraint while your dog is unattended, make sure your dog can’t get tangled up with another dog or object, or make it out a window or over a seat and hang himself.  I prefer to tether my dogs outside the car (to the bumper or undercarriage so they can get out of the sun) if I have no other option.

Tethering is cheap – it just requires the dog’s collar or harness and leash.  If your dog chews, tether with a chain leash.

 Tethering in Pickups:
It goes without saying that dogs riding loose in the back of pickup trucks have no protection whatsoever and pose a significant risk to themselves and other people on the road.  There have been incidents of dogs jumping or falling out of the back of trucks and being lost or worse, hit by vehicles behind them.  Also, they can cause an accident as other drivers try to avoid them.  Tethering a dog in the center of the front of the bed reduces the chance that he will wind up in the road but provides him absolutely no protection in the case of an accident.  Tethers must be carefully designed so a dog has no way to jump off the side of the truck and be dragged.  Riding loose in a capped pickup provides only a little more protection for a dog.  If your dog must ride in the back of the truck (capped or uncapped), your best bet is to secure crates so they can’t fly around during an accident and crate them.

A restraint system will only work if you, the owner, consistently use it.  Make sure you choose the restraint system that works best for your needs.  Ideally, it will be either a heavy-duty crate or a crash-tested seatbelt to help keep you, your dog and everyone else on the road safe. 

Ben and Pip are in their crates.  All they need is for me to shut their doors and they are ready to roll.  The blankets over top keep the sun off of them and help prevent them from barking at distractions. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Not So Excellent Adventure

This is Why “This is How We Roll”
Why Dogs Should Always Be Restrained in a Moving Vehicle

For years now I have been toting my dogs in my vehicles in crates. And for almost as many years I have been requiring the adopters transport their dogs home for the first time somehow restrained, either in a crate (preferable) or in a seatbelt harness. On the occasion that an adopter comes without either, I teach them how to tie their dog into the seatbelt to keep them in their seat.

Now, I travel a lot with my dogs. In temperate weather, I have dogs with me everywhere I go, and I understand most folks don’t, so totally get that most people don’t want to own a vehicle that is always set up to carry dog(s). It matters not, I still advocate harnessing a dog in at the least. Especially after My Not So Excellent Adventure.

It was a beautiful day, the weather was clear, sun was shining and I had errands to run, and was headed to a local sheepdog trial for a couple of runs, and a visit. I loaded up my dogs as usual, but since one crate had all of its padding missing, I let Alec ride loose in his ‘spot’ between the crates and the passenger side of the truck.

All was well until our trip back to town to do errands. It was a really pretty day, one of those beautiful fall days that we cherish. I was not in a hurry, was enjoying the drive, listening to music when a woman in a hurry and not paying attention, turned into oncoming traffic, right in front of me, giving me no room to avoid her.

The crash seemed to take forever. Slow motion was in play, as even after we came to a stop, it was all surreal.  My chest had hit the steering wheel and knocked the wind from me, but my first thought was Alec. I could see that all of the damage was in front of me (well, mostly, the driver’s door was also pushed in) so wasn’t worried about the crated dogs, but knew Alec was at risk.

Turning as best as I could, I could see he was ok, but terrified. I spoke to him and he softened, but was still obviously really afraid.

After what had to be less than a minute after the wreck, people were at my door asking me if I was ok and were trying to open the car doors. Of course, I told them I had dogs in the car, they heard me, but I know they didn’t understand the ramifications of what that meant…they continued to try and open cars doors until I emphatically told them to stop.

The next 40 minutes or so were tense for me. As a matter of course, the police called Animal Control to come get the dogs. I had to explain that wasn’t going to happen, and had them call a friend with an SUV who could come and take the crated dogs to safety.

I won’t bore you with all of the details of the event, but I will say, for the 40 minutes we waited for my friend to come, I was stressing over the dogs and their safety, most of all Alec, who was loose.  I was extremely lucky that I was being cared for by two very tolerant paramedics and one very tolerant police officer. They understood my concern and allowed me to make things happen the way I needed them to for my dogs.  In the end, I was able to assist with moving dogs to safety (I was super concerned that Alec was loose and that two of the dogs were so stressed they may have been bite risks) and the dogs went on their way with my friend, while I was toted to the hospital ER via wailing ambulance.

In the end, I have a totaled truck, banged up crates, lots of soft tissue damage on me, and Alec was fairly banged up as well (he was tossed around and hit something , his front chest wall was bruised and swollen). I still feel horribly guilty as he would have been ok had I taken the time to bed the crate and popped him in it rather than allowing him to ride loose. All of the crated dogs were fine, no injuries, even though their crates were bent, they were safe.

The upside here is that I was with-it enough to be certain my dogs were cared for as they needed to be. Reflection made me realise how bad it could have been had I been unable to be their advocate. Dogs loose on the road, humans bitten by frightened dogs…etc.

My little not so excellent adventure has caused me to do a few things:
  • Always take the time to crate the dogs when traveling, even if it is only a few miles (my accident happened 10 miles from home)
  • Each crate has a canvas envelope containing emergency information and is labeled DO NOT OPEN CRATE (I hope this will at least make someone pause before opening)
  • Each envelope also contains an emergency letter
  • MABCR will no longer allow adopted dogs to travel home without a proper restraint, and we will do the education needed to try and convince people to not allow loose dogs in moving vehicles.
I know it is easy to think it won’t happen to you. I also know it is too easy to skip things when you are in a hurry. You wouldn’t get into a vehicle without putting on your seatbelt. You wouldn’t allow anyone in your vehicle to not use a seatbelt.  Please don’t let your dogs travel without being appropriately restrained.

Sarah Ruckelshaus
ED Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue

Monday, December 20, 2010

Surviving the Holidays

The holidays are fast approaching and there are some basic steps you can take to keep your pets safe, happy and relatively stress-free through the festivities. 

Many people travel during the holidays, if you are traveling with your dog remember to do the following:
  • Make sure he has current collar tags and a microchip.  Tags will get your dog home faster than anything else.  Make sure that the number on the tags is a number you can be reached at while travelling - this usually means a cell phone number.  Consider also putting a temporary tag with a local number on his collar.
  • Restrain him in the car – either with a seat belt or in a crate that is secured so it can’t move around in the event of an accident.
  • Consider making and carrying a lost dog flyer with a current picture in the event that you are separated from your dog while traveling.  At the very least, email yourself a couple of recent pictures (head and profile shots) so you will have access to them in an emergency.

While you are visiting or if you have visitors in your house:
  • Try to keep your routine as consistent as possible.  Keep walk, feeding and exercise times as consistent as possible.
  • Whether you are visiting or have visitors in your home, make sure you take your dog’s crate or bed and put it in a quiet place, out of the flow of traffic where visitors won’t bother him.
  • Even if your dog is a social butterfly, make sure you give him periodic “time outs” to let him settle from the excitement.
  • Manage greetings.  If you have a young dog or multiple dogs, crate or restrain the dogs while people are coming into or leaving the house.  Let them out to socialize after people have the settled in.  

If visiting family involves merging one or more packs of dogs:
  • Manage coming and going.  Introduce dogs outside with a little side-by-side walk.  Moving helps dogs settle and gives them something constructive to do while getting comfortable with a new dog.
  • Watch mixed groups of dogs.  Your dog may get along just fine with your brother’s dog on a walk or outside but add confined spaces, lots of people and yummy food and your ordinarily friendly dogs may start to posture, resource guard or mark territory.  Remember that doorways, people, food, toys, beds and cars are all likely triggers for resource guarding. 
  • Let individual dogs or individual packs of dogs rather than everyone out at one time.  This will help reduce stress.  Take all the dogs out together for walks or playtime outside if they all get along. 
  • Give each group of dogs their own crating space like separate bedrooms.  Let them out together in managed situations.  Consider putting a baby gate up so each pack can have free run of their own end of the house without all being thrown together.
  • Remember that mixing groups of dogs increases the chance that dogs will urine mark in the house.  If you have a dog that marks, manage him so he doesn’t have an opportunity to pee.  A single urine mark can quickly degenerate into a full fledged pee war and that’s not very festive.

If there are small children involved:
  • Don’t leave any dog, no matter how sweet, unattended with small children.  Any dog can be pushed past his threshold especially after a long day of excitement. 
  • Make sure the dog has a place he can retreat to where the children will leave him alone. 
  • If your dog isn’t used to children, remember that a baby gate can be a great tool for allowing both of them to see the action while keeping them safely separated.
  • If children are old enough to play with the dogs safely, supervise them and make them a part of playtime.  Many young children enjoy throwing a tennis ball, playing a game of tug with an appropriate toy or asking a dog to sit or do tricks for a treat. 
  • Manage the dog during greetings to make sure he can’t jump on or intimidate a small child.  Don’t expect him to just “get it” on his own.

And about the big meal:
  • If your dog is used to getting table scraps and people food, you can substitute up to ¼ of his normal ration with appropriate people food like lean turkey meat, mashed potatoes, or green beans.  So if your dog normally eats two cups of kibble per day, you can substitute ½ cup of table scraps for an equal amount of kibble without much likelihood of an upset stomach. 
  • Remember to avoid all the usual suspects like chocolate, onions, garlic, grapes or raisins.  Many dogs also don’t process wheat, gluten or dairy products well either.
  • Avoid salty foods like cured ham, sugary foods like desserts and greasy foods.  Cooked poultry fat causes gastrointestinal upset for some dogs. 
  • And of course, cooked bones are a no go.  They can splinter and cause impactions or perforations in the digestive track.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Thanksgiving at the beach!!
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Housebreaking the Easy Way

Once you get your new dog home, the steps you take in the first couple of days can set your dog up to succeed or fail at house training. Please check out the article below (written by Sarah Ruckelshaus, ED MABCR). This article takes concepts we've talked about before and puts them in a nice, easy-to-use schedule. This will help you set your dog up for success from Day 1.

The easiest way to housebreak an un-housebroken dog is to get him onto a schedule he can keep and work upward. This works for every dog, from puppies to adopted older dogs that never learned to keep the house clean. Always make sure there is not a medical reason for your dog's "accidents", such as parasites or bladder infections. I fact, I would highly recommend prophylactic worming of any dog prior to using this technique, just to be safe!

To be successful you will need three things: a crate, time and consistency! Armed with those three things, you cannot fail! One of the MABCR volunteers housebroke a 9 year old, un-neutered male in 24 hours using this technique!

Note the use of a potty spot. The use of a single potty spot in your yard or on your walking route, along with a command word can be a tremendous help, both to training and to clean up! If the spot is in your yard, consider using sand or mulch as a ground cover, it will be easier to clean and to disinfect periodically. Your command word should be a word(s) that you are comfortable saying in a public place and that others will learn easily. A command word(s) suggestion: 'go be good', 'go potty', 'hurry now', 'go find your spot', then of course you could be more obvious and ask the dog to just 'go pee'. Always praise immediately after the dog 'goes', it will quickly learn that this is a good thing and will make the connection with the command and the praise!

Thanks to my friend Rebecca for her sample schedule.

A sample-housebreaking schedule:

7:00AM--Take him out of crate, potty him immediately (no play until finished) try and establish a potty spot and command word. Do not return to house or play until dog has pottied.

8:00AM--potty him
Feed and water him (10 minutes, then remove food)
Potty him again (should defecate now if not before)
Walk or play with him (only in house if he has peed and pooped)
Potty again
Crate him

12:00PM--Take him out of crate, potty

1:00PM--potty him
Offer him water
Feed and water him (10 minutes, then remove food)
Potty him again (should defecate now if not before)
Walk or play with him for 45 minutes or so (relieve him again if he looks distracted)
Potty him
Crate him

5:00PM--Take him out of crate, potty

6:00PM--Potty him
Feed and water him
Walk or play with him for an hour or so (relieve him again if he looks distracted.
Potty him
Crate him
--He can play inside while you eat, etc., only if he has been fully relieved or he can play outside (try to document whether he relieves out there) if attended.

7:00PM--Offer him water for the last time
Potty him

9:00PM--Potty him
Give him a treat for going in his crate.
He should sleep quietly through the night.

Please remember that this schedule can be flexible, but also remember that you new dog needs plenty of 'out' time! Also remember that a well-exercised pup will behave and sleep better in the crate than one that is restless and not receiving enough attention and exercise.

Crated dogs and pups should be offered plenty of good, solid chew toys....but no edibles in the crate until training is fully established!

Puppies and young dogs being raised in the company of other dogs should have time alone with people and will develop better and have a stronger people bond if some training time each day is with the pup, alone.

One big mistake that new dog owners make is allowing young dogs too much free time alone in the home, too soon. Remember that you wouldn't allow a 3 year old child to play alone when you aren't at home, don't let your dog get into trouble the same way!! Let him know that his crate is his den and he will be happy there until you return.

©Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue 2009

Friday, December 17, 2010

Where is the bathroom anyway?

We discussed house training in a previous note but understanding why dogs go to the bathroom where they do will help you to set your dog up for success.

There are several factors that come into play when a dog chooses a spot to eliminate; two of the most important factors are scent and substrate preference. Taken together, we can use these to factors to develop a bathroom habit for our dogs that we find desirable.

Dogs use their noses to find the bathroom. You already know that when your puppy starts to sniff around the room, that’s your cue to hurry him outside to do his business. Puppies naturally look for places that other dogs have eliminated and they do it with their noses. This is a good reason to collect accidents and place them in the desired potty spot – it helps to build the scents that cue your dog telling him the bathroom is right here. It is also a good reason for choosing a single potty spot and consistently taking your dog to that spot. This concentrates the odors in one place and helps the dog to stay on task when he is taken outside to eliminate.

Scent also makes it important to thoroughly clean up any accident in the house with an appropriate enzymatic cleaner. Dogs’ noses are much more sensitive than ours and regular cleaners will frequently leave behind residual odors that continue to cue the dog to eliminate in that area. Enzymatic cleaners are designed specifically to destroy these odors that we humans may not smell. The natural breakdown of urine results in the release of ammonia. For this reason, ammonia should never be used to clean up accidents because it will actually mimic the smell of urine and encourage repeat soiling in that area.

Substrate preference is also very important. Substrate preference simply means that dogs become accustomed to eliminating on a certain surface or substrate. For many dogs, this substrate will be grass but sometimes it is puppy pads, papers, litter, concrete, gravel or bare ground. Whatever your dog most frequently eliminates on will become the preferred substrate over time. Our goal when house training is to make sure that the puppy eliminates on grass or another preferred substrate as often as possible. This will result in a puppy that over time wants to eliminate on the desired substrate rather than on our carpet or pile of clothes in the bedroom. Repeated house training accidents may result in the pup developing the wrong substrate preference. This is why you need to really restrict your pup’s unsupervised access to the house if you are experiencing accidents. You don’t want him to have the opportunity to develop the wrong substrate preference.

For older dogs, substrate preference can play a significant role in house training. Dogs that have been confined to a kennel may prefer to eliminate on concrete or gravel because they have become accustomed to those substrates. Likewise, a dog that is used to having a yard may have a hard time learning to eliminate on bare ground or concrete when he moves to an urban environment. An issue often arises when people paper train puppies or small breed dogs and then want to transition them to pottying outside. These animals have developed a substrate preference for paper that makes getting them to eliminate on grass harder. This is one reason that I really like the sod box option for puppies that must eliminate in the house – it maintains the integrity of the substrate preference (grass) even though the pup is eliminating in an undesirable location (the house).

For paper trained puppies, I often encourage owners to move the papers closer to the door, then slowly outside. Once the dog is regularly going on the papers outside, the paper can gradually be cut down until the dog is finally going entirely on grass. In this case, we have gradually changed the location (inside the house versus outside the house) while maintaining the substrate preference; then we gradually changed the substrate preference by making the papers smaller and smaller until they are nonexistent.

You can use your dog’s natural instincts to follow scent and substrate preference to train him to potty in specific areas outside as well if you are consistent about taking him to your chosen place to potty, reward/praise him for doing his business there and consistently remove accidents from other parts of the yard. At the end of the day, these two factors combine to form a habit for your dog. It becomes his habit to go to the bathroom in a certain place, that smells like the bathroom to him, on a certain substrate because that is part of his routine. Breaking the routine will be uncomfortable for him just like it would be for you.

Humans experience substrate preference too. Our preferences just tend to be for porcelain. Do you remember the last time you had to go to the bathroom in the woods or in a foreign country where the amenities weren’t quite what you expected? Be patient if you have a dog that needs to learn a new substrate preference either because of his previous background or because you have been a little lax in the house training department.

Several years ago, I had an experience with my Ben that illustrates just how important substrate preference and habit can be. I have the luxury of a large yard and don’t like the dogs doing their business in the mowed part of the yard. When I got Ben, I would take him down over the hill in the tall grass to go potty and that quickly became his habit. It is great because I never have to deal with dog poop in the yard and the dogs know right where the bathroom is. However, we weren’t prepared when we took a trip to Ohio and stayed in a hotel. Poor Ben was so conditioned to going down the hill and in the tall grass that flat, mown, urban Ohio offered no bathrooms for him and he didn’t go for several days. He was very happy to get back home to the mountains and “real bathrooms” again!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

House Training Your Puppy or New Dog

House training is a common concern for new puppy and dog owners.  House training requires a lot of patience, commitment and consistency on the owner’s part.  It is your job to set your dog up to succeed in eliminating in the right place each time he needs to go.  The more consistent you are, the faster your pup will house train.  Below, I’ll discuss several steps and guidelines that will help you house train your new pet. 

First, establish a consistent routine for sleeping, waking, eating, playing and eliminating.  Puppies and new dogs thrive on a regular schedule.  It not only helps them to understand what is expected of them – it will also help you anticipate when your dog will need to eliminate.  Puppies will need to go out each time they wake up, after they eat and when they are done playing.  Additionally, they will need to go out regularly in between these times.

Take your pup out, a lot.  On average, a confined pup (crated or tethered) can hold it for about his age in months plus one.  That means a two month old pup can hold it for about 3 hours tops – less if he is unconfined.  Smaller dogs will also need to go out more frequently.  It’s not fair to ask a dog to hold it longer than this. 

Take him to the same spot each time you go out.  Go with him and take him on leash.  Keep this separate from his fun walk or playtime.  This will help him focus on going potty.  Over time, he will become conditioned to eliminating when you take him to that spot.   

Put a cue on eliminating.  When you see your pup starting to sniff or circle in anticipation of eliminating, tell him to “Go potty”, “Hurry up” or whatever you want your cue to be.  When he finishes eliminating, praise him and reward him with a treat if you want.  

In the house, watch your puppy closely for signs that he needs to eliminate – sniffing, restlessness or circling are common signals.  Don’t wait for your dog to “ask to go out”, instead try to anticipate him and take him out first.  (Dogs that learn to ask to go out to potty will frequently start to ask to go out just because they are bored or want to play.  I much prefer to set the schedule.)  Also, make it a point to only let a young puppy loose in the house for 20-30 minutes immediately after you know he has eliminated outside.

Develop a consistent method for confining your puppy when you can’t actively watch him.  Crate training is excellent for house training but you can also use baby gates to limit the puppy to a small portion of a room or bathroom, or tether him to you or a nearby piece of furniture.  The space should be small enough that the pup does not want to eliminate in it but large enough that he can stand up, turn around and lie down comfortably.  Any time you release your puppy from his confining area, immediately take him straight out to his potty spot to eliminate.

If you work full-time, it may not be the best time to adopt a young pup.  Instead, consider an adult dog that will be better able to hold it through the day.  If that isn’t possible, you will need to set your young pup up with a walk in the middle of the day or provide an alternate way to eliminate.  Don’t leave your puppy with only the option of soiling in his crate.  This will make house training much more difficult.

If there is no way to get your pup outside to potty, I recommend cutting a sod pad, fitting it inside a cut-down box, plastic kiddy pool or dog litter box (available at pet stores).  Eliminating on grass in the house is less confusing than eliminating on paper.  Paper training is an option but I find that it tends to slow and confuse the house training process.  If using a sod box or paper training, make sure that the puppy has enough room to have a bedding area, play area and elimination area. 

Feeding consistent amounts of food at regular times will make elimination more regular and easier to anticipate.  This means feeding a young pup 3 or 4 meals per day at regular times rather than leaving the food down and letting him graze.  I also take food and water away about 3 hours before the puppy’s bedtime to help him sleep through the night without having to pee.  If he does need to go out during the night, keep it quiet, short and sweet.  Don’t play with or snuggle the puppy, take him out to his spot and put him back to bed so he doesn’t get too excited. 

There will be accidents.  It’s a normal part of house training.  If you catch your puppy in the middle of eliminating in the house, make a noise to startle but not scare him (clap your hands or say, “Ah ah ah”).  Immediately take him outside to his spot, praise him and give him a treat if he finishes there.  Don’t punish your puppy for going in the house. 

Scaring or punishing your puppy will cause more problems than it will fix.  If you find an accident, it’s your fault for not watching your puppy.  Clean it up thoroughly and use an appropriate enzymatic cleaner to remove all odors from the spot.  Don’t use ammonia for cleaning.  Put any solid waste in the designated potty spot outside.  

Make sure you are appropriately supervising and confining your puppy.  If you are having regular accidents in the house, you are giving your puppy too much freedom and need to make sure that he is always supervised or confined until you get it under control.  If he has too many accidents, he will get confused and the house training process will take longer. 

Common problems:
Some puppies will eliminate in the house right after they have been outside.  For many puppies, this is because they are too excited or not comfortable enough outside to eliminate there.  In these cases, confine the puppy as soon as you get back in the house.  Take him back out to the potty spot 15 minutes later and try again.  Repeat the process until he successfully eliminates outside, then give him a short period of supervised play inside. 

In some cases, puppies will eliminate in their crates.  This frequently occurs when the crate it too big.  Usually a smaller crate will solve the problem because puppies naturally don’t want to soil in their sleeping area.  Try a smaller crate or a crate with an adjustable divider for a growing pup.  Make sure the crate is always large enough for the pup to stand up, turn around and lie down comfortably.  Some puppies that were raised in puppy mills or inappropriately confined will learn to soil in their crates.  This makes house training more difficult but not impossible.  Use alternate forms of confinement, watch closely and make sure to take the puppy out even more frequently and praise and reward profusely.

Adult dogs usually house train much more quickly than puppies.  However, dogs coming from outdoor, kennel or shelter environments may need to learn to hold their bladders.  For these dogs, follow all the guidelines above but confine for only 2 to 3 hours at a time before gradually increasing. 

Finally, if your puppy starts to have accidents after several months of successful house training, you may be giving him too much freedom too quickly.  Most puppies are not fully house trained until 7-8 months old.  They don’t have accidents if managed correctly but may if not given enough structure.  Some small dogs take longer.  Remember that the more consistent you are, the quicker the process. 

A great resource on housetraining is Patricia McConnell’s pamphlet “Way to Go: How to House Train a Dog of Any Age”.  It is available online.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Crate Training Your Puppy or New Dog

Crate training is a valuable tool for housebreaking as well as managing your puppy or adult dog.  Most dogs quickly learn to view their crate positively and many dogs continue to seek out their crates for resting long after they are needed as a training tool. 

Introducing the crate:
Ideally, the crate would be introduced slowly when there isn’t a need to crate the dog and leave for any period of time (such as over the weekend after getting a new puppy on Friday).  Leave the crate door open and allow the puppy to investigate.  Toss goodies and treats near the door of the crate to encourage the puppy to approach and enter the crate.  Do not shut the door the first several times the puppy enters the crate. 

When the puppy is comfortable going in and out of the crate, close the door and pass the puppy a treat through the bars before opening the door and letting him come right back out.  Gradually increase the amount of time that the door is closed but do not leave the room. 

It helps to have a stuffed treat toy like a Kong or a stuffed marrow bone the first couple of times that you leave the room.  Encourage the puppy to enter the crate using a treat, once he’s in the crate – give him the stuffed toy and leave the room for a couple of minutes.  Come back before the puppy is done with his treat, open the door and let him out.  Your goal is to make your dog think, “Hey I’m not done yet, go away and come back later!”  Gradually increase the length of time that you are out of the room. 

Crate Up!
Once your puppy is comfortable going in and out of the crate, add a cue such as “crate up” which you will say each time you put the pup in the crate.  Say your cue then lead your dog to his crate and throw a treat in the back.  Practice telling your dog to “crate up” frequently when you don’t need to crate him so he learns that going to the crate doesn’t just mean that you are going to close him in and leave him.

Making the crate rewarding:
Initially, make sure that every good thing that happens to your dog happens in the crate.  Feed him in his crate.  Give him his goodies, treats and chew toys in his crate.  Soon he will look forward to going to his crate.

Set clear boundaries for the people in the household.  If the dog is in his crate, children should not be allowed to try to pet, play with or tease the dog.  They certainly should not be allowed to try to call into the crate whether the dog is in the crate or not.  The crate is the one place in the house that belongs to the dog and he should be allowed to feel comfortable there.  (If your dog guards resources, including his bed or crate, please speak to me in person.)

Setting up the crate:
Do not initially put bedding in the crate with a puppy.  Many puppies will chew up bedding and some are more likely to mess in the crate if there is bedding.

Choose a crate size that is large enough for the adult dog to comfortably stand up, turn around and stretch out.  Most crates come with a divider so you can temporarily make the crate small enough that the puppy will not soil in it.  Do not give the puppy too much space in an effort to make him comfortable since it may encourage him to soil in the crate which will make housebreaking much more difficult. 

Have several sturdy, safe chew toys that you can rotate in the crate.  Tough rubber Kong toys or something similar are preferable to rawhide bones which can pose choking hazards.

When not to crate:
Do not crate a small puppy longer than he can physically “hold it”.  A good rule of thumb is to take the puppy’s age in months, add one and you have the maximum number of hours that the puppy can go without eliminating.  That means an eight week old puppy should not be left longer than three hours without the opportunity to go out and eliminate.  A five month old puppy should be able to hold it for about 6 hours.  By seven or eight months a puppy should be able to hold it for most of an eight hour work day.  These are just guidelines though and tiny or toy breeds often cannot hold it as long as larger breeds. 

If you work, consider having someone come by to let the puppy out to go potty (make sure they know where your potty spot is!) or run home at lunch to let him out yourself. 

If you have to leave your puppy for a longer period of time than he can physically hold it, do not shut him in his crate and force him to soil there.  Instead, put him in a kitchen or other easy-to-clean area and put down puppy pads or paper for him to go on.  Alternatively, put an exercise pen in front of his crate with papers in it so he can rest in the crate but go out of the crate to eliminate.

The crate can be used to give you and your puppy a time-out but don’t misuse this opportunity.  Be quiet and calm when you crate your puppy, don’t shove him and shut to door.  Just a couple of minutes in the crate is an effective time out, when the puppy settles down, release him from the crate. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

My dog is not fat!! Or is she?

Pet obesity is a rapidly growing problem in the US.  In fact, many people don’t realize their dog is overweight and vets often don’t bring the issue up until a dog is obese.  This is unfortunate since recognizing the problem early definitely helps.  Catching Fluffy when she has just a couple of pounds to lose is a lot easier than trying to make her the doggy-version of a “Biggest Loser” contestant.

How do you recognize when your dog is overweight?  Especially if you have a long coated or fluffy pooch, this can be a challenge.  Over and over again, I hear people say, “My dog’s not fat!  She’s fluffy!” or some variation on this theme.  While I realize no one wants to hear that their dog is overweight, there is an objective way of assessing your pet’s “body condition score”.  Scientists use a five point scale where 1 is an emaciated animal while a body condition score of 5 is obese (some references use a 9 point scale which more precise).  This basic scale can be found on the back of the bag of many brands of dog food.  Here is a link to a commonly used body condition scoring chart:  Your goal is a body condition score of 3 on the five point scale.  (On a 9 point scale, a score of 4-5 is ideal.) 

At a body condition score of 3, your dog’s ribs should be easy to feel but not visible.  Also, she should have a defined waist when viewed from above as well as from the side.  If you have a hard time feeling your dog’s ribs, she does not have a well defined waist when viewed from the side or top, or she has paddings of fat along the back and at the base of the tail, you will want to get some weight off of her.  I always handle my dogs to make sure I am assessing their body condition objectively before I make a decision about their weight.

Remember that “just a couple of pounds” can be a big deal for a small dog.  Pip Squeak should ideally weigh 25 pounds but at 27 pounds – just two pounds overweight – she is carrying an extra 8% of her ideal body weight.  That is equivalent to a 150 pound person carrying an extra 12 pounds.  If I let her pork up to 30 pounds (which can happen surprisingly quickly!) she is carrying an extra 20% of her ideal weight.  This is equivalent to a 150 pound person carrying an extra 30 pounds.  This excess weight takes a toll on your dog.  Excess weight puts stress on your dog’s joints increasing her risk of joint injury while worsening symptoms of osteoarthritis and hip displasia.  It also puts stress on the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys while causing respiratory problems in hot weather and increasing the risk of diabetes.

There are several steps you can take to help your dog lose weight.  The first and easiest thing to do is make sure you are measuring her food.  Don’t just pour kibble into her bowl or use a scoop – actually measure it with a standard measuring cup.  Read the guidelines on the back of the dog food back and make sure you are feeding the amount recommended for her *ideal weight*.  Feed the recommended amount for several weeks and check her body condition again.  If she isn’t losing weight, you can cut her ration by a quarter to a third.  In my experience, most dog food manufacturers recommend feeding more than most dogs actually need.  I usually wind up feeding about 2/3 to ¾ of the recommended amounts.  You can bulk up her diet with the addition of canned greenbeans or plain pumpkin.  Both of these foods are very low in calories but will add fiber and volume to help her feel fuller.

Secondly, cut out treats and snacks and replace them with affection and playtime.  Treats can add up calories very quickly, especially for small dogs.  If fed according to package directions, a 20 pound dog on Purina One Lamb and Rice will only be ingesting about 576 calories per day.  It will only take a couple of treats to add up to 50 calories or an increase of 10% of her daily caloric intake.  This can be the difference between her maintaining versus gaining weight.  Cleaning up your dinner plate may quickly have her packing on the pounds. 

Pip Squeak is constantly battling her weight.  (Okay Pip doesn’t care at all, I’m constantly battling her weight for her!)  When Pip is getting treats for training purposes, I measure out all her dog food at the beginning of the day and use it for training.  What’s left at the end of the day is what goes in her bowl for dinner.  If I need higher value treats, I will substitute a semi-moist dog food roll product like Pet Botanics rolled dog food ( for a portion of her regular ration. 

Make sure your dog is getting plenty of exercise.  Do whatever you and your dog enjoy but get her moving several times a day.  Focus on low impact exercise like walking.  Interestingly enough, I find that letting my dogs run around all day at the dog sitters is not as effective as taking them for a nice long walk.  So get off the couch and take your dog for a walk - several miles each day will make a difference.  A long steady state walk will help her drop the weight in a way that sprinting after a tennis ball for 10 or 15 minutes at a time won’t.  If your dog is overweight and out of shape, make sure you ease into the exercise slowly starting with 10 or 15 minutes of walking and gradually add from there.  Avoid high impact activities that will put a lot of strain on her joints like jumping and turning until after she has lost weight.  Sending an overweight, out-of-shape dog chasing after a tennis ball is a recipe for a joint injury.

Finally, if all else fails try a weight control dog food.  I used to poo poo the idea of weight control dog food but nothing else seemed to help Pip lose weight.  If you feed too little of a normal ration, your dog will feel constantly hungry and may not get the amount of nutrients that she needs.  Nutrient deficiencies are not only detrimental to your dog’s health, it can also cause joint pain and prevent her from losing weight.  If you are feeding less than 2/3 of the recommended ration for your dog’s ideal weight, ask your vet whether you should consider a weight control formulation. 

A weight control dog food allows you to feed a higher volume of food and will provide the recommended amount of nutrients in a less calorically-dense package.  When reading the ingredients list on weight control food, remember that there are likely to be high-fiber fillers in these foods.  These fillers help to increase bulk without adding a lot of calories.  Make the transition to a weight control formula slowly just like you would any other food transition. 

Make sure you read the bag carefully though and realize that there are inconsistencies between formulas and manufacturers.  I was reading labels this morning and 1 cup of Authority Weight Management provides 318 calories versus 384 calories in 1 cups of Purina One Lamb and Rice.  However, the Authority recommends feeding 1 ¾ c for a 20 pound dog for weight loss while the Purina One recommends 1 ½ c for a 20 pound dog.  This means that if you fed according to package directions, you would actually be feeding almost as many calories with the weight control formula as the Purina One formula.  (Authority Weight Control 1 ¾ c * 318 cal = 556 cal; Purina One Lamb and Rice 1 ½ c * 384 cal = 576)  Package recommendations are just that – recommendations.  You may need to adjust up or down to meet the needs of your individual dog. 

Manufacturers are not required to list the calories per unit volume in their food – only kcal/kg.  This can be confusing since foods are not equally dense but most of us feed by volume rather than weight.  Some manufacturers will provide kcal/cup but if they don’t, you may need to do some figuring to compare foods directly.  Carefully measure out a cup of dog food and weigh it (or convert the weight) in grams.  Divide the kcal/kg value by 1000 (to convert it to kcal/g) and then multiply that number by the weight of a cup of food in grams to get the kcal/cup.  This will allow you to compare calories per cup of food from one manufacturer or formulation to another.   

Each time you change some aspect of your dog’s diet, wait a couple of weeks to see how she responds before giving up or making another change.  Even though it can be challenging, helping your dog lose weight will protect her joints and health in the long term.  Remember the key steps: make sure you are consistently measuring her food, eliminate extra snacks and treats, increase low impact exercise and, if all else fails, try a weight control dog food.  Once she has hit her ideal weight, you will want to increase her feeding ration slightly (probably by about 10%) to maintain her new, svelte figure.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What should I feed my dog?

It can be a real challenge to choose a dog food.  Go to any grocery store or pet food store and you will find dozens if not hundreds of dog food options.  If you research dog food online, you will find people who claim that feeding anything other than a raw diet is tantamount to killing your pet.  Talk to people on the street and someone will explain that those raw bones will most certainly kill your dog and you best stick to scientifically tested kibble.  Ask your vet and they may well try to sell you an expensive prescription diet with an indecipherable ingredient list.  How on earth do you decide what to feed your canine friend?

For the purpose of this note, we are going to focus on prepared, commercial dry dog food (kibble) – raw or homemade diets deserve a separate discussion of their own. 

The first thing to remember is that no diet is right for all dogs.  It is important to choose a diet that your particular dog does well on.  Once you have figured out what works for your dog, try to rotate between several good foods or at least between several formulations from the same manufacturer.  Dogs that are regularly rotated between several different foods will be less likely to have stomach upset in response to diet change.  It also provides a level of protection against dietary imbalances when compared to feeding the same formulation for years at a time.   

There are several factors to consider when choosing a dog food including your dog, your budget and product availability in your area.  Dogs have different nutritional requirements depending on their age, breed, activity level, food sensitivities and health needs.  There are formulas to meet the needs of growing puppies, large breed dogs, dogs that struggle with their weight or have food sensitivities and many more.  People with multiple dogs frequently need to feed multiple foods to meet the needs of the individuals in their household.     

It’s important to be realistic about your budget.  Truly top quality dog food is not cheap.  If you are feeding several dogs or large dogs, budget may become even more of an issue.  Investing in a high quality dog food will save you money in the long run so you don’t want to skimp here but you also need to choose a food that fits your budget.  You may need to choose a good food that isn’t super premium but is one your dog does well on and one that you can afford.  

Product availability can be a concern in some areas.  In our area, it frequently requires an hour drive to get to a pet store that offers premium dog foods.  This limits some people’s ability to purchase high quality foods.  Other people are more willing or able to drive long distances or pay for shipping to get the food they want delivered. 

When choosing a dog food, your best bet is to turn the bag over and read the ingredients list.  There are certain key ingredients to look for and other ingredients that you will want to stay away from.  Ingredients are listed in decreasing order so the ingredients listed first will be present in the highest amounts based on weight before processing.

Ingredients to look for:
You want to see a named meat or meat meal as the first ingredient (ie., lamb or lamb meal).  Meat meal is cooked and dried prior to processing the kibble so a named meat meal will provide significantly more protein by weight than whole meat will.  However, you want to look for a named meat or meal (ei., “chicken” or “lamb meal”) versus “meat” or “meat meal” because “meat” and “meat meal” can include just about anything. 

Look for whole grains rather than several grain fractions.  Since the ingredients are listed in decreasing order, the addition of several grain fractions may mean that there is significantly more grain than meat in a kibble even though the meat is listed first.  Sometimes a grain fraction will play a specific role in a kibble but you don’t want to see too many of them or too high up on the list.  A whole grain should be listed as such (whole oat flour, whole ground corn) while a grain fraction is comprised of only part of the grain (rice bran, corn gluten meal). 

Ingredients to avoid:
Corn and/or wheat gluten meal may be added to increase the protein content of foods.  These should be avoided in favor of named meats and meat meals because corn and wheat proteins do not provide a complete amino acid profile.  While they bulk up the protein percentage of the food, it is not high quality protein and may not be metabolized well by the dog.  The presence of corn gluten meal isn’t a deal breaker but I wouldn’t want to see it too high up on the ingredient list. 

Most dog owners already know that meat by-products are an ingredient to be avoided.  Personally, I’m not offended by the idea of non-muscle animal parts in dog food.  I’ve seen some of the things my dogs will happily pick up and eat and I’ll tell you, they aren’t squeamish when it comes to beaks, feathers and feet.  However, by-products are generally comprised of low nutritional value parts of the animal.  By-products are also of lower value to the processor so they are generally handled and stored with less care and more likely to become rancid or tainted.  Whole meats are more expensive and therefore much more likely to be handled carefully.  As with meats and meals, if by-products are included in a food, make sure they are named (chicken by-product meal) versus generic (meat by-product meal) and they shouldn’t be too high up on the ingredient list.

Avoid artificial preservatives like BHA and BHT.  These can be allergens for many dogs.  Ethoxyquin is another artificial preservative.  Look instead for natural preservatives like tocopherols (vitamin E), vitamin C or rosemary extract.  Make sure you check the best by date on the label and buy fresh products.

So you’ve gone to the local grocery store, turned over all the bags of dog food and none of them look great, right?  Unfortunately that’s a common problem.  Most grocery stores don’t carry high quality dog foods, you’ll have to go to a pet store to find most premium brands.  The best choice in the grocery store tends to be Purina One.  Most Purina One formulations have real meat as the first ingredient.  Unfortunately, the ingredient list isn't fabulous from there with grain fractions and some lower quality ingredients rounding out the list.  However, if price or availability preclude a higher quality dog food, lots of dogs do well on Purina One.  In fact, their Sensitive Systems formulation has done great things for several dogs I’ve known including my own Ben. 

After the grocery store, you might be tempted to go by your vet’s office which likely carries Science Diet products.  When you get there, make sure you read the ingredient list.  Most Science Diet ingredient lists are dominated by grain-based, low-quality components.  Science Diet has done a fabulous job of marketing their product to veterinarians and is one of the few companies the produces prescription diets specifically targeting the needs of dogs with health problems.  If your dog has a chronic health problem that dictates a prescription diet (pancreatitis, chronic urinary tract issues, etc) Science Diet prescription diets may be beneficial.  However, for healthy dogs your best bet is to read the ingredients list and make your own decision.  There are better options available, especially at the price point that Science Diet sells at. 

So what do you do now?  You make your way to a pet store and find several brands whose ingredient list meets many or most of the criteria we set above.  Choose several brands or formulations within a single brand and slowly switch your dog’s food to the new food.  Keep a record of what food you are feeding including the protein source and grains in the food.  Note how your dog responds to the food – is he excited to eat it?  How is his energy level?  How does his coat look and smell (some dogs with food intolerances will smell excessively “doggie”)?  Is he experiencing any itchiness, minor infections (eye, ear and skin especially), or gastric upset like vomiting, diarrhea or gassiness?  When you rotate to another food, keep track of any changes.  You may notice that he does better on some proteins than others or with certain carbohydrate sources or grains than others.

That brings us to another point.  You can now get dog food with all sorts of interesting and exotic ingredients like bison, duck or even kangaroo.  Unless you have a compelling reason (like food allergies), avoid these proteins in favor of the more traditional beef, chicken or lamb.  This way, if your dog ever needs to go on an elimination diet at a later point in time, you will have these as novel protein sources to use. 

Several brands now offer grain-free kibble formulation.  Is a grain-free kibble better than a traditional kibble with grain in it?  Unless your dog has an actual sensitivity to grains, a traditional kibble is probably just fine.  Many dogs, particularly those from the herding and sporting breed groups, have traditionally been fed a highly grain based diet with very little meat in it.  While this diet may not have been ideal, many of these dogs tolerate grains very well.  In fact, some individual dogs seem to do better on a slightly lower quality dog food versus a super premium food, probably for this reason.  For some dogs with skin and coat issues, it may be worth trying out a corn-free or grain-free formulation to see if it helps improve their condition.  Grain-free kibbles still have plenty of carbohydrates, they just come from starches other than grains like potato or sweet potato.  If you are avoiding carbohydrates in the diet for a medical reason, your best bet would be to research a good, balanced raw feeding option.

So which dog food is the best for your dog?  Only time, research and trying a variety of kibbles will tell but start by turning that bag over and reading the ingredients list.  Then, keep a close eye on your dog and let him tell you which foods are right for him.