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Friday
Mar222013

Dogs, Bites, and Communities

This is part one of a four-part series on dog bites. 

 

Did you know that in 2011 there were over 70 million dogs and 310 million humans in the US? With those numbers and the fear many people have concerning children and safety, one would expect that we have an epidemic on our hands! Yet according to the CDC, only 4.7 million people are bitten every year. Yes, that number is way too high, but considering that most bites don’t need any kind of medical attention, it’s not as high as some people might believe. Still according to the CDC, 800,000 people seek medical treatment for bites, and 386,000 seek treatment at an ER. Again, while I believe these numbers are way too high and need to be lowered, in the grand scheme of things, the safety risk really is not that bad.

 

What about the really ugly stuff? Unfortunately, sometimes dog bites lead to deaths. I have read through many of the reports from recent dog bites, however, and I can tell you that in the majority of these cases there were some serious red flags before the dog did anything at all. However, in 2011, which is the latest year for which there are complete statistics, there were only 31 dog bite related deaths. Compare that to other things we encounter on a daily basis or at least regular enough to be routine: motor vehicles (32,367 deaths), airplanes (401 deaths), fire (2,520 deaths), and our children’s parents/guardians (1,570 deaths due to child abuse and neglect). So our nation’s dogs caused far fewer deaths than the next highest number- airplanes- and far far fewer deaths than the parents and guardians who are supposed to be caring for our nation’s children.

 

If you look at the statistics for our tri-state area, the results are even more shocking. According to the National Canine Research Council, in the last 48 years there have been only 4 dog bite related deaths in all of the state of Iowa, 15 in all of Wisconsin, and 30 in all of Illinois. In the year 2009 alone, there were 10 deaths in Iowa, 24 in Wisconsin, and 77 in Illinois due to child abuse and neglect. People worry about dogs biting children often (look at the whole dogs in parks uproar going on in Dubuque right now), and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it’s interesting that the statistics say that maybe we should be more worried about the parents and guardians hurting these kids as opposed to dogs. 

 

60% of bites are directed toward children, and kids under the age of 9 receive the highest rate of bites. Kids 4 and under are most often bitten in the head and neck region, which is of course a reason for concern. Boys are far more likely to be bitten than girls are. (All according to the CDC.) However, according to research from the NCRC, 90% of bites are minor- they don’t require any medical treatment. And the number of people going to the ER for a dog bite is less than 1.1% of all people going to the ER for treatment of injuries of any kind. Less than 2% of dog bite victims need to be hospitalized, compared with about 7% of victims of assault by another person.

 

Here’s the really great news- we can prevent the vast majority of dog bites, and also the vast majority of dog bite related deaths, because we know what the risk factors are! It’s really not that hard, either! The American Humane Association says the vast majority of fatal dog attacks involve male dogs (almost all of them intact) and a good 1/4 of the attacks involved chained dogs. Two thirds of dog bites occur on or near the victim’s property and most victims know the dog. This means you are far more likely to be bitten by your neighbor’s chained dog (especially if he is an intact male) than by a dog down at the Farmer’s Market (or in a park, if dogs are allowed in parks). Does that mean we should outlaw male dogs, or neuter them all? Obviously not if we want to keep the species around. Many male dogs are just fine with people, and many many male dogs never bite in their entire lives. But obviously something is going on with these male dogs, and I’m betting they are victims too. Let me explain.

 

According to the NCRC, the vast majority of fatal dog bites involve a resident dog as opposed to a family dog. A family dog is a dog who is fully integrated into the family- this dog lives in the house, eats in the house, exercises with his family, and fully takes part in life with his family. A resident dog simply lives on the premises, but has limited interaction with humans including those he resides with. These dogs include junkyard dogs, outside dogs who rarely see anyone all day, and the so called ‘guard dog’ who may be trained to be ‘mean’ to frighten people off. My guess is that more of these resident dogs are male than female, and especially if they are supposed to be “mean”, they aren’t likely to be neutered. If you have the stomach for it, read some of the case reports handled by the NCRC from past fatalities and see if you can tell whether the dog was a resident or family dog before they tell you. In many cases, what the news reported as a “family dog” who “turned on his owner without warning or provocation” was in fact a resident dog with many warning signs before the bite. Just be sure to have some tissues on hand and a good dog to snuggle with afterward to recover from what you’ll read. 

 

So why do dogs bite at all? Well, they are highly successful animals with a vast history of both scavenging and predation. They may be trained to hunt or naturally have a high prey drive, and they often live and interact with soft fleshy humans who may be ill, infirm, old, young, or make high-pitched squealing sounds like prey animals. Even more important, even though they have the longest known history of domestication and are so very important to us, they are sorely misunderstood animals, and rarely are their cares or feelings listened to or taken into account. Many people living with these animals haven’t the faintest idea what the dogs are trying to tell them. Really, sometimes I marvel that there aren’t MORE bites with all dogs are asked to put up with! 

 

Dogs do far more good than harm. Anyone involved in pet therapy can regale you with tons of stories about the amazing power animals have to heal us. They provide us with love and companionship, with a reason to get out and exercise and socialize, they are highly attentive to us and responsive to social bonds, they enrich and improve countless lives across the nation, and they also decrease things like blood pressure, cholesterol, and even feelings of loneliness. 

 

Some people think the middle ground is to ban large breed dogs, like pitbulls, mastiffs, Dobermans, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, and the like. We can keep the small breed dogs around for the positive things dogs bring us, and because they are safer than the big dogs, they reason. After all, a little dog can’t do much harm even if it does bite. The grisly reality is that Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, Miniature Schnauzers, and Pomeranians have all killed people as well- both adults and children. The reports are documented. So there is no “safe breed”- safety is all about owner management and control, the reproductive status of the dog, and the level of integration of the dog into the family. The first and last ones are in my book the super important ones. 

 

So to prevent dog bites, it’s actually fairly easily. Communities should encourage dogs to be fully integrated with the family, including encouraging families to socialize their dogs. Families need to be taught to listen to their dog’s attempts to communicate (more on this in another post). Children need to supervised around children, and many opportunities need to be provided for positive interactions between children and dogs. Families need to practice humane pet keeping, and kids need to be taught this as well. Dogs need to be well-socialized and properly managed. No one should interact with a chained dog, and families should be encouraged not to chain their dogs. All family members need to keep their eyes open to the possibility of a dog bite. If you don’t believe Fluffy would ever bite, chances are you won’t listen when Fluffy tries to warn you and you may actually force Fluffy to bite to get her point across. Your dog does not let the kids jump all over him to show how much he loves them- he does it because he is an amazing creature putting up with bad behavior while you are refusing to protect him. The reality is that any dog with teeth could bite, but few dogs actually do bite. If you try to see the world from your dog’s eyes, you can better identify any potential annoyances which could eventually trigger a bite. 


Thursday
Nov082012

The Unexpected

Many adult dogs have difficulties with unexpected events. This is why socialization as a puppy is so important- it reduces the likelihood that a particular event will be unexpected. A dog who has never before seen a person with a beard is likely to find facial hair unexpected. If that dog has not been well-socialized, it may over-react, resulting in scenes that are often embarrassing to the owner. That's not to say that a well-socialized dog will never be surprised, but in my experience they tend to recover from their surprise better than dogs who had not been well-socialized. 

 

Yesterday afternoon, a drunk driver came careening down my street and slammed into the power pole just opposite my house, sending it crashing down (thankfully not into any houses). Naturally, I was alarmed and jumped up to investigate. Naturally, the dogs were also alarmed and were crowding at my heels as I went to the window. However, the dogs and I have a protocol for when I have decided there's nothing for them to worry about. Therefore it was easy for me to get the dogs calmed down while I left the house to check on the driver (who walked away without any apparent injuries, and was on the phone reporting it. There were no passengers in the car.) . When I returned to the house, the dogs were excited, but not overly so. It was still easy for me to get them to listen and calm down. And then the police cars showed up (7 minute response time!) and the fire truck showed up. There were suddenly a bunch of people walking up and down in front of our house and in the street, along with flashing lights and everything. Then there was a bang bang bang on the side door of our house- knocking with only elicited a few alert woofs from Boo before I assured her I had everything under control. I went outside to talk to the fireman, who had kindly come by to warn us to stay out of our front yard because they were worried that the power pole directly in front of my house would fall down because of the tension from the wires. Indeed, the pole quickly began leaning quite dramatically. The fear was that if the pole fell, the wires would hit the ground and send electricity potentially arcing everywhere. We were asked to stay in the back of the house (whereas generally we all hang out in rooms at the front of the house). 

 

So dogs, cats, kids, and I all holed up in the office, the backmost room of the house, for a good hour and a half while the electrical company came out and dealt with the power lines and the drunk driver got arrested. The cats were a bit difficult to get into the office, as they do not like change, which is quite common for cats. Still, I coaxed them inside within two minutes. Both power poles had to be replaced, which involved lots of cranking and bumping and whirring from outside. The dogs, however, ignored all the commotion, including all the people called in to help. I was quite pleased with them! And then, about two hours into this unexpected event, the dogs asked to go potty. I knew they really probably had to go pretty badly by now, as they hadn't gone all afternoon. So I let them out with a simple command "Quiet" in a calm neutral voice and stood on the stoop. Not a peep from them, even with the power guys in our yard and the machinery cranking away. 

 

Even now, the power company is back with more machinery (I don't know what they're doing, but I'll just trust that they are doing their jobs) and the dogs haven't a care in the world. This is despite the fact that my Lab is a bit territorial (she likes to bark at people on her territory) and my Rott used to be afraid of great commotions like this. Simply by teaching them the words I need them to know for happy everyday life with them and staying calm and taking charge myself, we were able to handle this in a way I know a lot of people dream about. But the great thing is, it's possible! My dogs, my family, are not outliers. With patient, consistent practice and enforcement of house rules and commands, you too can expect to face The Unexpected with confidence, and maybe even a smile!

 

Thursday
Oct042012

Identification

I thought I would take a moment to discuss proper identification of your pets. There are many things to consider, but the most important thing is to make sure your pets have some sort of identification on them at all times. Your pet will not get lost when you are prepared- it is only when you least expect it that these accidents occur. That is why it pays to be a bit obsessive about identification. Lost pets wearing ID are exponentially more likely to get back to their owners than those pets without ID. They are also less likely to be assumed to be dumped or stray by passers by. 

Obviously, the first thing people think of is tags, and tags are important because anyone who finds your lost furry friend is likely to be looking for collar and tags. Rabies tags and license tags are important, but they won't help a regular person (who is most likely to find Fido or Fluffy) return your pet to you, especially on the weekends when places like veterinarians and animal control offices may be closed. These tags will, however, assure the finder that this pet is someone's companion and is more likely to be healthy and vaccinated. The best tag to put on your pet is a personal identification tag. This is a tag with your name and or your pet's name, and a good phone number and/or address. An address will allow a finder to simply return your pet to your home, while a phone number will allow the finder to contact you. Keep in mind that an animal control officer may not take your pet directly back to your home, but even if your pet ends up at the local pound, the animal control officer will be able to call you and let you know how to reclaim your pet if they have some way to identify the pet as yours (such as a tag). It is imperative that the address or phone number be accurate and up to date- otherwise no one will be able to contact you and the tag does no good. Tags that are dinged up, chewed on, or heavily tarnished may be hard or impossible to read, so check your tags regularly. Tag protectors and pockets such as the Quiet Spot help tremendously in this area.
 
One big problem with tags is that they come off. This is fairly common, especially with a dog who likes to run through thick underbrush. It is more common for the S-hook rings to fail than for the keyring type connector to fail, in my experience. However, if your dog regularly loses his tags, try putting your information directly on the collar. There are many options to do this. You can buy a personalized collar with identifying information such as a name and phone number embroidered directly onto the collar. Also, you can buy a plate-type tag, which fastens directly onto the collar. This tag can carry the same information as other tags, but instead of dangling below the collar, it is fastened onto the fabric of the collar so that it is parallel and flush with the collar, making it much less likely to get torn off accidentally. This bracket type tag is also good for cats, as regular tags are more likely to catch on random things as they prowl about. Also, if your pet is sound sensitive, a bracket type tag or the embroidered collar is the way to go- no jingling to cause your pet to fret, and yet your pet remains identified.
 
Even the best fitting collar will sometimes get accidentally torn off. This usually happens with cats, as they are prone to prowling in closed-in spaces they can barely squeeze through. This habit of cats is why they should wear quick release safety collars, so they don't run the risk of accidentally strangling themselves. However, if the safety collar does its job and comes off when it gets caught, any identification that was on the collar is now lost with the collar. The same is true for the dog who happily tears into thick brush and loses his collar along the way. This is why it's important to have a second line of defense, especially for cats. This back up identification should be a permanent ID, meaning a tattoo or a microchip.
 
Tattoos and microchips work the same way. Your pet is identified with a unique code. Once the tattoo or microchip company is called and is given the code, they can direct you to the contact information for the owner. This of course is only as good as the contact information, so again it is imperative that you keep this information up to date. Most often, this information gets out of date when the pet changes hands and the new owner does not update the information with the ID company, but this can also happen if the owners move. So, tattoo or microchip? Neither is better, but they both have their own pros and cons. For cats, I would recommend a microchip hands down. For dogs, personal preference rules. 
 
Microchips have become very common in recent years, and many veterinarians, animal control officers, and shelters carry microchip scanners, which can read the code of the microchip embedded in the animal's skin. However, there is a fairly high failure rate, and this is compounded by the fact that many of the older microchips would migrate over time, so that a microchip that had been inserted between the shoulder blades may eventually be found in the back leg or some other part of the body. The scanner usually has to come within inches of the chip to read it, so it is imperative that the person using the scanner scans slowly over the pet's entire body (usually impossible with feral or panicked cats and sometimes dogs) before concluding that the pet is not microchipped. When I worked at the shelter, there was one dog that we all swore we had seen before. Over the course of two weeks, we scanned her four or five times, making sure to be slow and thorough each time. Each time, the scanner showed no chip. Eventually, the owner called looking for her, and said she was chipped. We scanned again. No chip. We scanned one last time. Finally, the chip registered. Fortunately, this dog had a happy ending and was reunited with her family, but it was a dramatic illustration for us of the fact that microchips were not infallible. However, they are very quick to install with only minor pain (like a shot), fairly cheap, and they are supposed to last for a life time.
 
Tattoos are another way to go. They are less common now and few people look for them unless tipped off that a tattooed animal is missing. However, they have been in use longer than microchips, and have a good track record as far as safety goes. They are painless to apply, but the buzzing of the pen may make some pets nervous (although peanut butter and belly rubs usually help). A properly applied tattoo lasts for the pet's lifetime, but long hair may obscure it (leading some pet owners to regularly shave the tattoo area). A tattoo is a visual indicator, so you don't have to worry about a scanner failing, however, if no one looks for the tattoo or if it is hidden by fur, it may still be missed. Tattoos are generally applied on the ear or on the back leg.
 
What do my pets wear? The dogs wear buckle collars all the time with a personal identification tag, a license, a rabies tag, and a tattoo tag (Lenny also has his humane society tag). These tags are kept safely tucked inside Quiet Spots, although i have in the past used tag protectors which run along the outer edge of the tags with good results. The cats wear safety collars at all times, each with a plate-type personal ID tag on them. When Lenny works area searches, he wears a bright orange personalized buckle collar with contact information embroidered on it. Both of my dogs are tattooed and my cat ZugZug is tattooed. My cat Friendly is microchipped. All of their numbers are stored in a fireproof safe in my house, just in case. Regardless of having the paperwork on hand, though, I rest easy knowing that should my pets ever go missing and should they slip their collars, they still have a good chance of coming home since they have the back up, permanent identifiers. 
 
How are your pets identified?

 

Thursday
Aug022012

Furry Friends for Babies, Too!

When I worked at the shelter, I was surprised at first by the sheer number of cats that came into the shelter because a baby was coming or a baby had arrived. It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I determined to keep our cat (we only had one cat, Zuggy at that time) when I was pregnant with my first child and even after he was born. Even when I was pregnant with my youngest and for a time after he was born (when he was still small) I watched the cats like a hawk and was probably overly cautious. However, with two kids and two cats, we haven't had a single problem, and furthermore, the research that I did before my eldest was born showed me, and still shows, that it is certainly possible to keep your cat while you are pregnant and have little ones. Let's explore the true dangers, the myths, and the real, simple solutions.

First, a myth. There is an old wives' tale that a cat will kill a child by stealing its breath. In truth, this won't happen, but there is a danger if the cat sits in the chest of a small infant. If the infant is very small, they will not have the strength to breathe with a ten or fifteen pound (or more) fluffy thing sitting on them. The solution to this danger is very simple- keep the cat out of the crib especially while the baby is in the crib. We will explore ways to keep the cat out of the crib in a little bit.

The second true danger also relates to suffocation. If the cat is lying close by the child and they are not old enough yet to be able to roll over, they present the same hazard to breathing as a crib bumper or a blanket does. The soft fluffy fur can easily inhibit normal breathing- just try burying your face in a friendly, tolerant cat and see how long you can stand it. However, many young children including infants love the soft feel of fluffy fur. The danger of suffocation is alleviated in the same way as above- simply and easily by keeping the cat away from the sleeping baby.

Another thing parents often worry about is the danger of allergies. In fact, studies have shown that households which include a pet have much lower incidence of allergies and asthma than households without a furry friend. So, if you are worried that your child will have allergies, you should get them around furry animals more, not less. The exception of course is if your child already has allergies or asthma, in which case there are some things you can do to lessen the dander and perhaps keep your pet without causing a reaction, but that is a topic for another post.

Many parents worry about scratches and bites. If your cat is reasonably friendly and healthy, this usually is not too much of a concern in the early months. Infants in the early days do little besides lay around, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly. Cats are not likely to feel too threatened by an immobile object regardless of the noise as long as they are reasonably well socialized and have places to hide in which they feel safe. Thus, it is unlikely that a healthy cat will randomly walk up to an immobile infant and bite or scratch it. Some things that can cause a young infant to seem like prey or something to chase (for dogs, too) include swings and bouncers, so if your baby is in one of these, either confine your animals or be sure the baby is under direct, adult, competent, and most importantly, alert supervision. A sleeping, exhausted adult is not adequate supervision for a child in one of these devices (nor for a child sleeping in a pen or crib in which the cat can jump in). In the early days when you are exhausted, give yourself a break and confine your animals while you and your baby take a nap. That way there is much less chance of anything happening.

Now, a child who is mobile can certainly elicit a bite or scratch from a frightened cat, and many children in fact do get bitten or scratched by cats. A healthy cat is not likely to cause significant harm provided the wound is thoroughly cleaned out and there are no extenuating circumstances. However, one should be proactive to prevent such occurrences. Trim your cat's nails and socialize them gradually to the various noises, smells, and movements of an infant or young child. Teach toddlers and young children how to properly pet Kitty and supervise them so that everyone enjoys the interaction. By preparing your cat for your child's arrival and by continuing to supervise and train each of them together (cat and infant) that interaction can be calm and enjoyable, you are setting everyone up for success.

Okay, now some of you may be wondering, what about parasites? Your cat should be checked out by your veterinarian prior to your baby,s arrival not only to ensure your kitty's health but also to be sure Kitty is free of parasites. However, there is one real danger than many people do not learn about unless they are told by their OB-GYN to beware of it- toxoplasmosis. Some cats carry a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that is shed in the feces, and if a pregnant woman is exposed while scooping the litterbox, for instance, and then ingests it (perhaps by not washing her hands sufficiently and then having a snack), the parasite can cause significant harm to the unborn child, including blindness, mental disability, or brain damage. A mother who has already been exposed to the parasite and is immune has less to worry about than a mother who has not been exposed, but regardless, this danger can largely be averted by having someone else (someone not pregnant) change the litterbox. Another good way to keep safe is to ensure that the litterbox is scooped frequently, as any shed parasites do not become infectious until a day or more after they are shed. If you can not find someone else to change the litterbox for you, wear disposable gloves and thoroughly wash your hands in warm water with soap afterwards- pretend you are a surgeon going into surgery, and go ahead and be a bit paranoid about your hand washing. Also, be aware that cats who are exclusively inside are much less likely to carry the parasite than cats who do go outside. If you are pregnant, wear gloves any time you have contact with dirt (such as gardening) regardless of whether or not you own a cat- stray cats may eliminate in your yard and the dirt around that area may be infectious.

Okay, so we need to avoid contact with litter, we need to supervise the cat and the infant, and we need to keep the cat out of the infant's sleeping area. How do we do that last one, anyway? One easy way is simply to close the door. With each of my children, we routinely kept the door of the nursery closed during the last month or so of pregnancy, just to get the cats used to not being able to enter that room. With that preparation, we had no trouble once the baby was born, because the cats were already used to the room being off limits. Some people use a Dutch door or install a screen door for the nursery so they can still look in on the infant without entering the room, but still have an effective means of keeping the cat out.

If this is not an option, never fear. My next favorite option is a crib tent. This mosquito net- like device is designed to keep climbing tots IN the crib, but also works great at keeping cats out of the crib. Be sure to close it up when the baby is in the crib and also when the baby is out of the crib. You may have luck for a while by conditioning the cats to stay out of the baby's sleeping area before the baby actually comes, by coming the mattress with aluminum foil or double-sided tape. The reason cats love cribs in the first place is because we put lots of soft cuddly things in there for Baby, and cats like that too. They do not like aluminum foil or sticky things like tape, so if they expect aluminum foil or tape all the time, they will lose the desire to get in the crib. Of course, you will have to remove the foil or tape while the baby is in the crib, and you may have a curious cat test the crib out repeatedly, so this is not my favorite solution, but it may help you in the preparation stage. Just don't rely on it exclusively after the baby is born. Instead, after the baby is born, use a crib tent or keeping the cat out of the nursery as your primary means of managing the environment.

Unless your cat is aggressive or excessively fearful (not coming out of a hiding place, for instance), or if there is a medical reason why your infant can not be around your cat, there really isn't much reason to rehome your cat simply because you are having a baby. With a little preparation and some supervising your cat and your infant can live happily together in the same house. Who knows? They may even become the best of friends, and cats certainly can teach little ones a lot of wonderful life lessons such as responsibility, compassion, self-control, love, and friendship.

Thursday
Jul192012

To "No" or not to "No"

There is a trend in the dog training world that owners should never correct or punish their dogs-even to the point of never saying "No". The argument is that we humans are too prone to jump to punishment and we say "No" too often. While I am all for keeping corrections to a minimum, I do believe they have their place. I prefer the term "correction" as opposed to "punishment" simply because I believe that training is really about educating the dog (and the owner, in the process). Punishment brings thoughts of judgement and they-deserve-it, not so much about education and teaching. But when I was in school, if I gave a wrong answer, I was corrected- either verbally or with the correct answer written on my paper beside my wrong answer- and I could learn from that correction. Correction, to me, is a term more in line with the theme of teaching our dogs what we expect of them. And for many dogs, "No" is a viable means of communicating that correction.

I often have to counsel my clients to say "No" to their dogs, because they are afraid that if they do say "No", it will be wrong, or hurt the dog's feelings, or ruin the dog, or some such. Yet when they begin using the word "No" thoughtfully and calmly, to mark exactly the behavior they don't like, the dog begins to improve quickly. We go from providing only one line of feedback- "Yes" or a treat or some reward- to providing two lines of feedback. The dog quickly realizes that we are telling him what we like and what we don't like, and from there we can help the dog build up their self control so that they are able to rein in their impulses and do more things we like and less things we don't like.

When my clients don't say "No", it seems to me that the training gets all messy. Maybe this is just my point of view, colored by my own impressions and thoughts, but that's how it seems to me. I haven't done any videotaping and analysis, so I don't know for sure. But I regularly see an owner ask their dog to "Sit", and then when the dog breaks the sit and that command is asked for again, the dog moves or paces, looking for a treat, rather than resuming the command. They've been relying on the one form of communication- the "Yes"- and it's like they are momentarily confused when the reward doesn't happen before the next command. Keep in mind, I may be being awfully anthropomorphic, because again, I haven't had a chance to study this. However, it seems to me that when we add in the second marker of "No", and the dog breaks the sit command again and hears "No", their attention snaps to the owner, not looking for food, but looking for direction. They hear "No", and they try to change the situation, to do what you want so they can get the reward, as opposed to simply wondering why you aren't rewarding them now. Then, when you follow the "No" correction with the repetition of the command "Sit", the dog is thinking, and decides to try Sit to see if that will change the situation and earn them a reward. They looked for direction, they got it, and then they have another chance to follow the command. This is quite simplistic and certainly isn't true all the time for every dog, but it's enough of a trend that I have begun noticing it in my clients' dogs as they learn.

Obviously, if you are going to lean too far one way or another, it is safer to lean too far toward rewards than punishments. However, I believe that most people are capable of striking a balance. I believe most people can appropriately correct their dog without causing fear or pain. And I believe that throwing out the use of the word "No" for fear of abuse is to lose a valuable tool in communicating with our dogs. Most people need all the help they can get, so throwing out a useful tool is unhelpful.

I use "No" with my dogs, as I do with my cats, and with my kids. "No" allows me to correct a mistake before it turns into a problem. It lets all the members of my family know that I am watching, that I am there to help. When my 15 month old (who is still learning about proper canine etiquette) jumps on one of the family dogs, I tell him "No". My dogs hear me and invariably relax, knowing that I have the situation under control once again- they do not have to take matters into their own hands to protect themselves. Relaxed dogs are much safer for children to be around, and so the situation goes from one in which things could go downhill quickly to one that turns into a learning opportunity, as I take my son's hand and show him once again how to properly pet his dogs. (He's improving, but 15 month olds make mistakes just like 15 year olds, and 30 year olds, etc.... oh yeah- and just like your dog!)

Last night as I was brushing my teeth getting ready for bed, our cat Friendly sat in the bathroom watching me. We keep the bathroom doors shut normally, as our other cat Zuggy loves to play with toilet paper and it is just easier for us to manage the situation than to train him otherwise. As I finished up, I said "Friendly, out", having long ago taught him the meaning of the word "out", which he typically obeys. This time, he did not. He just sat there and looked at me, probably wishing he could hunt the floss. Rather than let him stay in the bathroom or pick him up and carry him out, I chose to reinforce the command "Out" with a correction. Cats respond amazingly poorly to punishment in general, so why did I correct my cat? Because I knew he could take the level of correction I was giving him, and I knew it would get the job done with no adverse effects on our relationship. What was his correction? A tap on the shoulder. A simple tap on the shoulder exactly like I would tap my toddler on the shoulder to get his attention. I tapped Friendly and repeated my command "Out", and he immediately obeyed, calmly and without stress. (If he had not, I would have picked him up and carried him out, but being such a big cat, I'm not sure that being carried is especially comfortable for him, so that would likely have been more stressful, actually, than the tap.)

I hope this demonstrates to you that a correction can, and should, be done calmly, without fear or pain, and with a minimum of stress, all in an effort to educate the individual you are correcting. If I get something wrong, I want to know about it. I have seen the way training, including using "No", with my reactive dog has raised his self esteem since adopting him 3 years ago. He absolutely loves knowing the answer to something, and if I never told him he was wrong, I think that would be stressful for him, because he is a dog who hates confusion.

Of course there are wrong ways to correct your dog, and there's more to it than I can go into in a single blog post. The purpose of this blog post isn't to teach you how to correct your dog or when or if you should (talk to a capable trainer for that information, since it will be specific to your situation). It is instead, I hope, to demonstrate that corrections are not necessarily bad things, and that they can indeed be wonderful tools to enhance your communication with your dog.

I leave you with a gratuitous, cute picture of the dogs snuggling together. Remember to get out there and enjoy your pets!