There's simply no doubt about it. Cannabis has hit the mainstream here in Canada and in most parts of North America. As a societal development, some of us love it and some of us hate it. The reasons are as many and varied as there are leaves on a tree. What we do know for sure is that, at least in humans, cannabis can play a huge role in dealing with the symptoms and in some cases, even in the healing of many diseases. But is it any good for our dogs?
From what we can tell so far, the answer is yes and no. Emergency veterinarians have seen their share of dogs suffering from THC intoxication. If you don't know what THC (short for tetrahydrocannabinol) is, let me explain in brief. THC is the intoxicant chemical in the cannabis plant. It's the stuff that makes you "high", and for dogs, it can be quite poisonous. Even in small doses, THC intoxication in dogs can lead to uncontrollable urination, heavy panting, enlarged pupils, vomiting, the inability to control their limbs (shaking legs), and in the worst cases, fainting, irregular heart rhythms, and apparently, as was the case for two small dogs from Colorado who ate more than a pound of edible cannabis each and asphyxiated on their own vomit, even death.
Does that mean that cannabis is absolutely out of the question for our pets? Well, not necessarily. Cannabis has a number of chemicals that act on the endocannabinoid system - a system of bodily receptors that exist in nearly every living creature on the planet, and one of the most promising among them is CBD (short for cannabidiol).
You may have heard of this one. Used for the treatment of ailments like cancer, epilepsy, a number of eating disorders and more, CBD is proving to be a therapeutic powerhouse, easing and even eliminating symptoms that could often be life-threatening. Cannabis plants cultivated to grow with high levels of CBD are non-psychoactive, meaning that ingestion will not result in the same euphoria or "high" as other varieties of cannabis. We have a pretty good idea of just how useful this is for humans, but can it help our dogs?
Early studies point to a resounding yes. When used for conditions like arthritis, epilepsy, cancer, and even anxiety, proponents of CBD treatments swear by it's usefulness with their pets. When all other pharmaceutical avenues have failed, pet owners turn to CBD treatments as a final resort. What's more, with cannabis legalization in Canada looming just over the horizon, chances are that the number of people willing to look into CBD as a treatment for their unwell dogs will only increase.
It is important to note that the purchase of cannabis by the general public for non-medical purposes remains illegal in Canada (with the date for commercial legalization set for July of 2018), and that the research into the use of CBD treatments for dogs is still in the early stages. If you decide that CBD treatments are the way to go for you and your dog, or you feel you are simply out of options, use caution. Due to the continued illegality of cannabis, finding a reliable, CBD-only source of this medicine is risky business at best.
Finally, it is critical that you talk about this avenue of treatment with your veterinarian, as they will be able to direct you on reasonable dosages and safe use with your pet. And if you do decide to go this route, never leave your dog unattended after administering treatment. It could be the difference between life and death.
This Thanksgiving weekend, I want to talk a little bit about dog adoption. I am thankful every day for the companionship of my dogs, Gus and Indy. They are my best buds, my side kicks, and my inspiration to truly excel in the field of canine care. These two are best friends and yet their histories, and the stories behind how my partner and I came to find them, are very different.
Indy, my Australian Shepherd, was rescued from an abusive, neglectful situation at a little more than a year of age. Gus, on the other hand, was adopted from a lovely lady in Chatham, Ontario. The last of his litter, Gus was eager to find his forever home. And I was delighted to provide that for him.
In both cases, the decision to adopt our dogs was not one my partner and I took lightly. Our struggles with Indy's behavioral issues, a direct result of the poor treatment he received as a puppy and adolescent, made us think very carefully about what we were prepared to handle with a new dog. We researched Gus' breed, what training him might be like, the possible health issues he may face down the line, and decided he was a good fit for us.
The experience of adopting both a rescued adult dog, and a relatively new puppy has given us a unique insight on what any potential dog owner must consider when looking into adopting a new canine friend. In this blog, I'd like to talk about the challenges faced by new dog owners rescuing shelter dogs compared to adopting senior dogs, and finally, adopting puppies from a breeder.
To start, there are an awful lot of similarities. In all cases, a new dog owner will want to be prepared with the basics: a solid leash, collar, and identification tags, insurance or a savings account for veterinary care (or both, if you're really clever!), a crate appropriate for your dog's size, lead-free feeding and watering bowls, a few different toys (plush, chew, puzzle), and of course, an ongoing budget for good quality food. Being certain that you can afford what your new rescue dog or puppy needs is critically important - do not get caught off guard!
If you are considering adopting a dog from a shelter, a rescue organization, or an individual, it is important that you prepare yourself for any specific behavioral needs of your new best friend. Dogs that have been surrendered for any reason will be sensitive to your expectations, and may have needs particular to their experiences.
What's more, you may not know of past traumas or difficulties your new companion has endured. Dogs bond deeply to their human friends, and the breaking of those bonds can be a heartbreaking experience. With this in mind, it is equally important to note that rescued dogs in a loving environment recover quickly, are eager to please, and want nothing more than to remain in your care. Being financially prepared to employ a trainer or behaviorist to help you with any unresolved traumas (abandonment, physical/emotional abuse, lack of socialization, reactivity) is a very important part of this decision.
New dog owners who rescue surrendered dogs unprepared for these all-too-common issues often end up re-surrendering these animals, who are broken even more deeply by the experience. The decision to adopt a surrendered dog must not be taken lightly. It can be a challenging experience, but when done with love, patience, and kindness to these sweet animals, the rewards are incalculable.
You may decide, after reading this blog and doing your own research, that the time and hard work a shelter dog requires just isn't for you. That's okay! Not every household is prepared or ready for the potential needs of a rescued dog. I want to make clear - not every rescued dog will have behavioral challenges! But many do, and potential dog owners must prepare for that possibility. Never allow yourself to be guilted, bullied, or coerced into getting a dog that doesn't suit your lifestyle and experience.
Next, let's focus on adopting puppies and senior dogs.
Senior dogs are an often overlooked, wonderful addition to any family. They are usually lower energy than a puppy, adolescent, or adult dog, and their behavioral needs are well known and have been addressed. Gentle, sweet, and eager for a loving home in which to spend their last years on Earth, senior dogs deserve more of our care and attention as potential dog owners. If you are considering adopting a senior dog, be sure to have some financial room for veterinary care, the need for which will only increase over time as the dog ages, and definitely consider insurance or a healthy savings account to deal with any pitfalls that may come your way.
If you should decide that a puppy from a reputable breeder is the way to go for you, know that the challenges are not unlike that of adopting a shelter dog. In fact, your responsibilities will be even greater, as it is you that will determine how well adjusted your puppy will be as an adult. During the adoption process, be very wary of adopting from puppy mills (where the living conditions for dogs are often atrocious), insist on up-to-date health and vaccination records for both the parents and the puppies themselves, and build a relationship with your breeder. They are likely to have recommendations for questions regarding puppy training and dog care down the line.
You will want to educate yourself thoroughly on what it means to raise a puppy, in terms of nutritional needs, physical exercise, mental stimulation, basic obedience training, and socialization. These five elements of puppy care will determine whether or not your puppy grows up to be a well rounded canine citizen. And of course, don't forget that once your puppy hits adolescence, you'll be doing this work all over again. Hormones will rage, and one day you'll wake up and discover your well behaved puppy is all grown up with a mind of his/her own!
Similar to rescued dogs and seniors, you'll want to have a solid plan in place for veterinary care and the unforeseen. Dogs are not inexpensive - be sure you can handle the financial responsibility before adding one to your life.
No matter if you decide to adopt a rescued dog, a brand new puppy, or a senior in his or her golden years, the decision to add an animal into your life is not one to be taken lightly. Taking a hard, honest look at your lifestyle, your financial health both today and in the years ahead, the amount of time you have to dedicate to one of these animals and the resources for raising a dog at your disposal (the help of friends and family is huge!), is critical to a successful, long-term relationship with your new best friend.
Separation anxiety makes up 20-40% of cases dog behaviorists are brought in to remedy every year in North America. The symptoms include, but are not limited to: ripping the house to shreds (I remember coming home to my couch in absolute pieces on one occasion - Indy had completely taken it apart), incessant, inconsolable barking, house soiling accidents, and self-harming behaviors. A dog with this disorder will "ask" for constant reassurance from their owners, or any humans in the vicinity, by doing things like leaning heavily on a person, climbing onto laps, and perpetual whining or barking for attention.
In Indy's particular case, the only symptom we didn't experience was house soiling. Indy has been known to bend back the bars of his crate, tear through the garbage, pull off the refrigerator door and clean out the contents (oh yes, I said it. Right off it's hinges, folks), howl, bark, whine, and scratch himself raw.
So how does separation anxiety become habituated in our dogs? In many cases, owners simply don't realize that dogs need to learn to cope with being alone. It doesn't come naturally to them. What's more, without proper obedience training to create some level of impulse control, the dog is unable to self-calm, alone or otherwise. When we suddenly have to leave our canine companions due to a job change, a move, or travel, the symptoms of separation anxiety can crop up very, very quickly.
In Indy's case, as a puppy and adolescent, we learned that he had been tied up outside and left for long periods of time without food or water. When Indy panicked due to prolonged isolation and neglect and began to act out with extreme, unwanted behaviors, his forced exile from the family only became worse. Australian Shepherds are high energy and extremely social by their very nature - tying down a working, herding breed alone for extended periods could only result in massive psychological and behavioral problems. And so it was for Indy.
So how did we help our beautiful, red-headed herder to cope?
To begin, it is important to understand that punishment, in the case of a dog with separation anxiety, is completely out of the question. It will only increase their anxiety to before unseen levels. Even harder to understand is that coddling the dog will also worsen things. It is often our first instinct as pet owners to tell our anxious dogs that, "Everything is okay!" Ultimately, that attention only rewards the anxious behavior, habituating it even more deeply.
Instead, we must take a different path and build our anxious dog's confidence and independence. So that's what we did with Indy. Let me explain how.
To start, we associated our departure from the house with good things for Indy. In cases less severe than his, often leaving a favorite toy, chewable, stuffed kong, or food puzzle is enough to keep our furry friends busy while we're away. Be sure to put the toy down five to ten minutes before you leave, and to remove it when you return, ensuring that the dog associates the enjoyment of the toy for only those times when you are away.
Next, we put Indy on a firm "Learn to Earn" program. This means that, for everything Indy wants, whether it's dinner, his frisbee (his greatest joy in life), the kong, or even our affection, he must earn it through offering us good, appropriate behavior. Having basic obedience training under your dog's belt is critical here - without it, the dog will not know how to offer you the behavior you want. In this way, we built up Indy's confidence, and today he is proudly proficient at nearly fifty different canine cues.
As with all of the dogs in our care, Indy knows that the first step to getting what he wants is to 'Say Please By Sitting." Check out www.alldogstoronto.com/the-all-dogs-blog/mine-mine-mine-part-one-food-possessiveness for how to teach your dog to "Say Please By Sitting."
Next, we had to train Indy to be able to stand on his own four paws independently. To do this, we started with a deceptively simple tethering protocol. While we were home, Indy would be tethered on leash to our bedroom door. This ensured that he was only able to get within a foot or two of either my partner Ben, or myself. Whenever Indy was calm during this time, he would be rewarded with five seconds of petting and affection. Slowly but surely, we began to increase our distance away from Indy until, eventually, we were out of his sight.
Careful here. You want to be sure you only leave your anxious dog for an instant before coming back. Do, however, wait until s/he offers you a sit before you walk back up to the dog to offer affection.
While working on the above, Indy would practice repeated "Sit-Stays" and "Down-Stays", and repeat them in rapid succession, never allowing a moment to get worked up about being tethered or being unable to touch me or my partner. Starting with a step away from Indy, we slowly increased to two steps, then three, and so on.
The final stage involves removing the tethering and taking yourself out of the house altogether. We began with short departures out of the house for several seconds at a time.
It was critical that we return to Indy each time before his anxious behaviors set in. Ideally, when training your dog to be alone, you want to completely avoid the anxious state of mind. Habituated behaviors are extremely difficult to modify, and the longer they have to "set in", the more difficult the process of rehabilitation. In Indy's case, we put him in a down-stay, and systematically broke down our method of departure. Allow me to explain what I mean.
First, we chose to treat our departures like a distraction. Ben would pick up his keys and jiggle them. We rewarded Indy with some kibble, returned to the couch, took off our shoes, and made like nothing was happening at all. We repeated this exercise (put Indy in a sit-stay --> pick up keys and jiggle them --> reward Indy --> sit back down) at this level of difficulty about ten times consecutively, until we were sure Indy would not react in an anxious way.
The next stage was the handle to the front door. Jiggling it at first would be enough to set Indy off once again. and so, we backtracked it to the couch once more. Opening and shutting the door, walking out and coming right back in, and each time rewarding Indy for good behavior before he became anxious.
Finally, we increased the intensity of this exercise by actually walking outside and staying out longer than before, all while doing our utmost to make sure we returned before Indy could become anxious.
There are a few more things you can do if your dog suffers from separation anxiety like ours does. To start, it is critical to end the drama of entering and exiting the house with your dog. Be sure to ignore your anxious dog for twenty minutes before you leave and after you return. If your dog, like Indy, paces and circles you anyway, reward him for repeated, successful "down" cues and "say please by sitting" behaviors for however long it takes for him to calm down and remain that way.
The entire protocol, in all of its complexity and with a mind to truly reduce the anxiety your dog experiences when alone, should be repeated twenty to thirty times each day with at least five to ten iterations of the departing protocols per session. And don't forget to follow each session with your dog's favorite tasty treat!
While working on all of this, there are a few things to do to manage your dog while you're away. Use a dog sitter, or a kennel service. If your dog will tolerate a crate, you can use one for very short periods away. In the most severe of cases and as a last resort, some dogs will require medication. Please be sure that this course of action is always paired with significant behavior modification.
As with any behavior modification protocol, these techniques work best at the first signs of separation anxiety, long before the behaviors are heavily habituated in the dog's psyche.
Separation anxiety, while a challenging and difficult set of behaviors to modify, can be treated with the consistent application of the above protocols and a hefty dose of compassion for our canine housemates. What's more, the work you do with your dog will build a relationship of understanding between you that will last for the entire life of your dog. It may feel impossible, but resolving these issues to extinction IS possible.
If your dog suffers from a severely habituated case of separation anxiety, enlist the help of a qualified behaviorist to help you and your family with this time-sensitive, challenging process.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.