The sound of dog hearts breaking

I’ve been on ‘staycation’ this week to catch up on home chores, read, write and relax. Bliss! However, being at home for a few days has made me realise how many lonely and neglected dogs there are in my suburb.

There are three in particular that I regularly hear barking during different times of the day. Each time they do, it stabs me in the chest. Because every single one of them very clearly sounds heart broken.

The one who lives the closest to me and that I can hear the loudest, has a bark that sometimes ends with a little whine. The same sound of pain as if it has hurt its paw. The other one, a little further down the road, has a hoarse, enquiring bark that ends on a high note. As if it’s asking the question of when the endless loneliness will end. The third, even though it’s a few blocks away, has a bark that ends in a long howl. You can hear its vocalised grief every single time. And it breaks my heart too.

I know from observation that two of these dogs are outside-only dogs. The one with the lonely bark has a family that leaves for work early and comes home late. Sometimes they go out at night again, which is when that heart-breaking sounds start up again. The dog gets a plate of food shoved out the back door but I have never seen the owners interact with it. Ever. Either take it for a walk, or play a game.

My local council reports that dog barking is the number one complaint lodged with them every year. While an endlessly barking dog nearby is not easy or fun to live with, we must remember they are doing so because they are in emotional pain. While they bark for various reasons, in the majority of cases it’s because they are lonely, isolated, anxious, frightened and unsure. Imagine feeling like this every day of your life with nobody prepared to help you. As animals that live in a family-orientated structure, being left outside alone, day after day for a dog is like being put in jail. These dogs have essentially been given life sentences of emotional starvation. It’s not fair on them and in my mind, is as much a form of animal cruelty as is physical violence or torture.

I’m not saying that dogs shouldn’t be left alone, but we need to teach them to cope and that means human effort is involved. Here are some of my observations about dogs that can handle being left alone:

  • They are acclimatised to being alone over small periods of time, which are gradually built up.
  • Every single time when they are left alone they are given something to do such as play with a new toy, chew on a meaty bone and find treats scattered across the yard. Make being outside fun – take the food out of the bowl and make them hunt for it. There’s a large variety of ‘home alone’ stimulation options or calming techniques such as leaving the radio on.
  • Before the human leaves the house, that dog is well exercised. That means getting up 20-30 minutes earlier and taking the dog for a run, to the park or playing games – so their energy is expended before the family leaves and if they are left to hunt for their food, they’ll be tired with a full belly and more likely to sleep until the humans return. Dogs do not exercise themselves in the back yard, no matter how big it is and bored dogs are more likely to bark or chew on things they shouldn’t.
  • Dogs that cope being outside better are allowed inside for periods of time. Either joining in when the family are home, or left inside when they are out (either for a small amount of time or ensuring they can get out through a doggy door). This reduces their feelings of isolation and that every day is the same over and over again.

So next time a barking neighbourhood dog is annoying you, think about why they might be barking and speak to your neighbour about making them aware of it and helping their dog, as they may not even know it’s happening. I also regularly ask my neighbours if they hear my own dog bark when I’m out so I can take action if I need to help him be calm and happy when left home alone.

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Get your wolf off the couch and other dog myths

Myths such as puppies don’t need pre-school, garlic prevents ticks and that dogs will dominate you if they sit on the furniture with you are busted in this second installment of the Modern Pet Dog workshop by Northern Beaches dog trainers who are united by positive philosophy.

Louise Colombari – Pittwater Animal Hospital

As a veterinary nurse and a dog trainer, Louise dispelled some myths about our canine companions that many people believe or grew up learning.

  1. Dogs have an innate desire to please

Busted: They aren’t born with a desire to please us but are motivated by attention, food, praise, toys and games etc. They work out what’s beneficial for them and how to get out of the environment. Some are more motivated than others so experiment what they’ll work for.

  1. Playing tug makes dogs aggressive

Busted: This is great way to mentally and physically exercise the dog. Is also a great form or positive reinforcement. You should teach a ‘release’ or ‘drop it’ cue – which also makes it a great training activity. Teach them to grab toy with permission and only pull side to side to avoid neck injuries. The game temporarily ends when play gets too rough.

  1. My puppy doesn’t need puppy school

Busted: The benefits are huge. Socialisation is from 4-16 weeks of age. Common excuses that Louise has heard from people includie they include they can’t afford it / but they’ve owned dogs for years / have another dog at home that will teach this one / did puppy school 10 years ago.

  1. Happy dogs wag their tails

Busted: Yes but for lots of other reasons as well. Use their tail as part of the overall communication process. Position of the wag is important. Low slung signifies fear or anxiety. Mid-set is calm or neutral. High set or straight up means the dogs is alert or threatening.

  1. If you use treats to train a dog they’ll always be needed to obey your commands

Busted: Dog has a choice that if they act on the cue given, their behaviour has a consequence. Treats are a primary resource as we control the food. So we use it to get them to do things. Different types of food have different levels of reinforcement. Not a bribe (present food to do the behaviours) but a reward (after they perform the behaviour = pay). When behaviour is reliable can phase it out with others such as pats or praise. Fade out, not completely and replace with other reinforcers. A dog that will only perform for food has not been trained properly. Take the rewards out of their food allocation of the calories. Make sure it’s the right food / do they like toys more and they won’t eat if they are stressed.

  1. A warm / dry nose means your dog is sick

Busted: False belief that dogs noses have to be wet. Their temperatures fluctuate. Not a reliable sign. Check with your vet if not sure about their health.

  1. Adding garlic to their diet prevents fleas and ticks

Bused: When ingested in large amounts garlic can lead to the breakdown of red blood cells, anemia and death. Belongs to the alium family (includes chives, leeks) – same compound. Not necessarily an outward appearance of toxicity but has an effect on the red blood cell.

  1. My dog is scooting their backside on the ground – they must have worms

Busted: They have anal glands in their bottom. Gives information to other dogs about them. Scooting means they have an itchy bottom which may be due to impacted anal glands, not worms. Can also be a skin irritation, wound or abscess. So get it checked by your vet.

Maxine Fernandez – Canine Kindergarten

Studies done in the past made the false link between dog and wolf behaviour. The wolves studied to make this conclusion were held in captivity in artificial family groups, forced to remain together in a more rigid hierarchy that impacted the behaviours they’d show in the wild. This has fuelled a decades-long, inaccurate perception that there has to be an ‘alpha’ leader, rather than the more true view that it’s actually a parental relationship between the different animals that guides the different activities of the group.

Humans have misinterpreted this inaccurate theory to mean that to maintain rank they must be dominant with their dogs, leading to aversive training which can lead to aggression, fear and anxiety that destroys their relationship with their dog. Common ways this myth is asserted includes:

  • The Alpha Roll – asserting dominance by forcing dog physically onto their back and pinning them down until they stop struggling, shake them by the scruff of neck. However, dogs don’t do that to other dogs and when they lie on their backs it’s always voluntary. You are likely create a fearful dog that mistrusts you if you use this technique.
  • Believing you shouldn’t allow your dogs on the furniture as if they are on the same height they are equal to you. But wolves don’t have couches in the wild!
  • You have to eat before your dog as the most dominant dog eats first. This is not the case as in times of scarcity the wolf puppies eat first, of if there is enough food they eat together.
  • Other misperceptions include: playing tug games promotes dominant play; a dog that mounts you or another dog is trying to dominate; dogs who pull on the lead or jump up on people are trying to be dominant; dogs who growl are trying to assert a dominant rank over you and never let your dog go through the door before you.

Also read about the first Modern Pet Dog workshop installment (is that a guilty look or is your dog scared of you?) if you missed it.