Standing Up For Your Dog

February 20, 2020

owner caressing gently her dogIf asked, we’d all say that of course we would stand up for our dogs; we’d do just about anything to keep them safe, healthy, and happy. But the reality is that situations arise where, due to social pressures and other factors, we don’t speak out when we should. For example, I cannot tell you how many training clients I’ve heard say things like, “The vet was really rough with Bella. I could tell she was scared. The vet slammed her on her back and held her down, and Bella became even more afraid.” Having worked at a vet’s office, I understand that some restraint and firm handling is necessary for certain treatments. But some vets are simply better than others about reading canine body language and working with dogs instead of using brute force to achieve their medical objectives. Unfortunately, very few owners will stand up to a veterinarian to voice their concerns.

I’ve also seen situations where an owner stands by as a professional trainer works with their dog in a way that concerns them. The dog may be in obvious distress because the trainer is being very rough with the dog while saying things like, “You have to show him who’s boss.” The owner is clearly distraught but stands silently by watching as the trainer uses excessive force to get the dog to do what he wants, not daring to intercede.

In both of these situations, part of the issue is that the person in charge is an authority figure. We are conditioned from a young age to respect authority figures, which can, unfortunately, make it challenging to speak up. Women in particular are taught to be polite and not make a fuss. (Gavin DeBecker’s excellent book The Gift of Fear illustrates how this conditioning can put women in harm’s way.) But it’s not just authority figures; sometimes it’s simple peer pressure. When I adopted my girl Sierra from a rural shelter, I was told she’d been there four times previously. I soon discovered that not only did she have a serious case of separation anxiety, but she could run like the wind. The latter wasn’t surprising for a husky mix, and I only let her run free in safe, enclosed areas. But a group of owners I’d encounter early mornings at my local park regularly let their dogs run free in the surrounding hillsides, and they invited us to join them. I politely refused, saying I hadn’t had Sierra very long and didn’t yet feel comfortable allowing her off leash. They kept at it, eventually moving from encouraging invitations to asking why I was so adamant about not letting her off leash. “Oh, come on, It’ll be fine” was their constant refrain. Well, maybe it would have been fine and maybe not. I did like the people and it would have been fun to join in, but I knew my own dog’s behavior better than they did and knew what could happen. Peer pressure or not, I wasn’t going to take that chance. It actually took the better part of a year until I felt comfortable letting Sierra off leash, and I don’t honestly care who thinks that’s a long time. Nowadays I can let her loose without worrying, as she has a solid recall and we have a very close relationship. But who knows what would have happened had I given in early on?

Peer pressure is constantly at work at dog parks as well. I don’t personally frequent them, but I have seen many times where dogs who are playing display warning signals in their body language and vocalizations. The owner of a dog will turn to the one who expresses concern and will say, “Don’t worry, they’ll work it out.” Maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but if you’re the person whose dog is in potential danger, it’s up to you to say you don’t feel comfortable, or better yet, just say, “Have a nice day!” as you take your dog and leave. If people think you’re overly careful, so what? A little social pressure is nothing compared to a serious injury to your dog. And remember too that not all injuries are physical; a dog who is attacked or traumatized by other dogs might well develop fear-based reactivity toward other dogs. I’ve seen it happen way too many times, and it’s much harder to fix than to prevent.

The bottom line is, even if someone is in a position of authority or has a string of letters after their name, it doesn’t mean that they know your dog like you do. You know that little voice inside that tells you when something is not right? That is the voice you should be listening to, not anyone else’s. You know your dog best, and you know when he’s uncomfortable or is in potential danger. We can’t keep our dogs from every stress in this world, and some things, like medical care, are necessary. But beyond that, we must be the ones who speak up for our dogs, be their best friends and their lifelong advocates.
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So You Think You Want a Husky?

February 8, 2020

Close-up shot of a husky dog's blue eyesI’ve been involved in wolf, wolfdog and dog rescue for something like 30 years. I’ve volunteered for and have been employed by L.A. city shelters. I’ve worked for a respected rescue group. In addition to being a professional trainer and behavior specialist, I now volunteer at an L.A. County shelter. I share all of this to let you know that I’ve seen a lot in the dog world over the years. But never in all of that time have I seen anything like the flood of huskies that is now pouring in to California shelters and rescues.

When a breed is popularized through film or television, unfortunate things happen. People get the Disneyesque version of the breed in their minds. Remember 101 Dalmatians? Think about all the unwanted Dals that ended up in shelters when people found out their dog was not Pongo. Or how about the Taco Bell Chihuahua, and all those oh-so-cute Chihuahuas who were purchased, given up, and left saying, “Yo quiero…a permanent home.” Add one part over-breeding and two parts lack of education and, well, now it’s happening with Siberian huskies. I believe the trend can be attributed in large part to the huge popularity of Game of Thrones. I personally never watched the show, but I do believe the “direwolves” were the catalyst for many people wanting wolfy-looking dogs.

The unfortunate part is that huskies, a breed I know well and love, are not only not direwolves, they’re not even typical dogs in the sense of what most people expect when they get a dog. Hence all the poor huskies that are now sitting in shelters and rescues. Unfortunately, people often see only the beauty of the breed. And huskies are beautiful; the gorgeous, thick coat (which, by the way, will shed constantly and also decorate your home twice a year when the undercoat is blown), the masked-looking eyes that are sometimes a startling blue, and yes, the resemblance to wolves. And huskies are intelligent, affectionate yet independent dogs who normally get along well with other big dogs. But what many people don’t see is that the breed comes with a specific set of needs and issues.

If you’re considering getting a husky, consider this:

1. Huskies are escape artists. They’ll jump over fences and dig under. (Burying a skirting of chain link along the fence line can help prevent dig-outs.) As far as fence height, some huskies will remain inside five foot fencing, but my recommendation is six feet or higher. Some owners even add lean-ins—those angled arms you see at zoos—at the top. Adding lean-ins to our already high fencing was the first thing we did when we adopted my girl Sierra, a husky mix who had been at a County shelter no less than four times before we adopted her. Oh, and getting back to your yard, if it’s a beautiful, pristine oasis with lovely flowers that you don’t want dug up or destroyed, this may not be the breed for you.

2. Huskies have a strong prey drive. More than a few have been surrendered to shelters because they chased or killed the family cat, or killed chickens or other small animals. Unfortunately, some have also attacked or killed a smaller family dog. Not all huskies have this strong of a prey drive, and some do coexist with smaller breed dogs. But personally, if I had chickens, a cat, or a small dog, I would not bring a husky into the home. Why take the chance?

3. Huskies need lots of exercise. And I don’t mean a 15-minute potty walk twice a day. I mean exercise; daily runs, hikes, or at least long walks. We used to do “urban mushing” with our dogs (a husky mix and a malamute mix), where, using special equipment, they pulled one of us on a scooter. In colder climates, people do actual mushing or carting with their huskies. Again, these dogs need serious exercise. If you’re an active, outdoorsy type, great! A husky may just be the perfect companion for you. If you’d rather sit on the couch and watch Game of Thrones reruns, maybe not so much.

4. Huskies can be very destructive when left alone. If you’re planning to leave an unexercised husky in an apartment and go off to work, you should also plan to come home to a space that has been completely redecorated in the Doggy Demolition motif.

5. Huskies don’t bark much, so they don’t make good watchdogs, but they do howl. Will this be a potential problem with your neighbors?

6. Huskies can be challenging to train to off-leash reliability. I tell you this not only as an owner but as a long-time trainer. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it will likely take a lot more work, as many will run off and will chase squirrels and other prey rather than coming back on command.

You might think, given all of these warnings, that I’m trying to dissuade you from adopting a husky. I’m not. I’m just trying to prevent more from ending up in shelters or rescues. Again, huskies are beautiful, affectionate, intelligent, companions. It’s because I love this breed that I implore you to consider whether a husky is really the right dog for you. If you do decide to get one, consider adopting. Shelters and rescues are filled with huskies of all ages, victims of a lack of knowledge on the part of previous owners. And consider an adult dog. What you see with an adult is what you get as far as temperament; it’s not going to develop into something different as the dog grows. And, you’d be saving a life.

If you’re interested, please visit your local shelter, especially city and county shelters where the dogs are in danger of being euthanized if they’re not adopted. You can also search on Petfinder, Pet Harbor, Instagram, Facebook, and many other places online to find huskies that are available through private owners or rescues. If you’ve got the right containment and home situation, you might even consider fostering for a rescue group, which would allow you to “test-drive” the dog and make an informed decision on whether to adopt. In any case, howls of thanks to you for reading. Please help to spread the word and to educate others about this very special breed.
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