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 with my eternal gratitude to Ben's mom, Sid, for finding the little guy, 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.
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 and chew himself raw.
In many cases, owners simply don't realize that dogs need to learn to cope with being alone in puppyhood. It doesn't come naturally to them. What's more, without low-stress positive reinforcement training to create some level of impulse control, the dog may find himself 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 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, he began to act out with extreme, unwanted behaviors. As his forced exile from the family became more prolonged, Indy's separation-related behaviors became more severe.
Australian Shepherds are, by nature, high energy and extremely social. 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, I came to quickly understand that punishment, in the case of a dog with separation anxiety, is completely out of the question. It will only increase anxiety to before unseen levels. Instead, we must take a different path and build our anxious dog's confidence and independence.
To start, I began to associate departures 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 can be enough to keep our furry friends busy for short periods while we're away. Be sure to put the toy down five minutes before you leave, and to pick it up on your return (provided your dog has finished with it and it's empty inside), ensuring that the dog associates the enjoyment of the toy for only those times when you are away.
Next, I began to train Indy in impulse control. This meant that, for everything Indy wanted, whether it was dinner, his frisbee (his greatest joy in life), a tasty bully stick, or even our affection, he must earn it through offering us good, appropriate behavior. I executed this with a manding protocol.
Having manding training under your dog's belt is critical to teaching impulse control. In this way, Indy's ability to communicate his needs and wants became reliable, increasing his confidence. In addition, I incorporated a basic, low-stress, positive reinforcement cue and trick-training protocol. This was designed to help Indy become less reactive, and a little more thoughtful. Thinking, instead of acting. By creating a tiny window in Indy's cognition, and by providing for one of his fundamental needs as a high-drive, super-intelligent breed of dog, Indy today is proudly proficient at nearly fifty different canine cues.
Next, I had to train Indy to be able to stand on his own four paws independently. To do this, we started with a deceptively simple but extremely detailed protocol designed to desensitize Indy to movement and sound. To do this, I had to incorporate elements of distance, volume, variety, and physical proximity to anything that might inform Indy that I might be leaving. With painstaking slowness, Indy began to experience desensitization to a great many precursor cues to departure.
While working on the above, Indy could practice calm sitting or lying down behaviors. Critical to this process was ensuring that at no point did we exceed Indy's ability to remain calm and un-anxious during the work. It meant revisiting many stages of the protocol many times, endless amounts of revision and rehearsal, and a calm, patient approach on my end. Some days I was certain we'd never succeed with the work, but we persevered.
Ideally, when training your dog to be alone, you want to completely avoid any and all signs of an anxious state of mind. Habituated behaviors are difficult to modify, and the longer they are left unaddressed, the more difficult the process of rehabilitation.
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 engage in calm, collected acknowledgement before you leave and after you return every time. Do not be tempted to make a huge fuss for any reason when you're returning home, or when you're leaving.
If your dog paces and circles you anyway, offer a lovely stuffed kong or a delicious bully stick as a way to channel that anxious energy productively. Long, firm strokes across the back and warm scratches all around the ears can also help your dog relax when aroused by unnecessary anxiety
While working through all of this, please understand that I did not do it alone. In fact, the vast majority (if not all) dog parents with a dog that suffers from acute separation anxiety will need a support network to succeed in the abatement of separation-related anxious behavior.
Utilizing dog sitters, family members, good friends, and even bartering services with other owners of dogs that suffer from separation anxiety will all help you navigate this incredibly challenging set of behaviors. If your dog will tolerate a crate, you can use one for very short periods away once your dog is able to tolerate a few minutes of alone-time entirely free of anxiety. Many dogs may require pharmaceuticals to help gently and gradually adjust the neurochemistry behind these anxious behaviors. It is very important to note that this particular course of action must always be paired with a systematic behavior modification protocol to achieve the desired results.
Separation anxiety is a challenging and difficult set of behaviors to remedy, but even in the most severe cases of separation anxiety with our dogs, there is hope. With the help of a talented canine behavior professional, the diligent application of hard work and mindfulness to your dog's emotional and mental state of mind, doing this work with your anxious dog can be the cornerstone of understanding between you that will last a lifetime. If you're just starting out, it may feel impossible, and that is COMPLETELY normal. Just know that you're not alone, and that help is out there for you and your dog.
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, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.