Holiday Hazards! How To Keep Pets Safe This Christmas

Christmas is such an exciting time, not just for us but also for our pets. We tend to be home on holidays, there are more people coming and going and the kids are home from school. But with all the fuss and excitement comes some hidden dangers for our pets. Here are my tips for keeping your pets safe this Christmas...

Christmas trees and decorations:

Christmas trees, both real and artificial, can be irresistible to curious cats and playful puppies. All that bright and shimmery tinsel, flashing lights and hanging decorations can make exciting new toys to play with. 

As lovely as they are to look at, tree decorations can be hazardous. Baubles can break and cut paws if they're stood on and decorations can cause choking or gastrointestinal obstruction if eaten. Christmas tree lights pose an electric shock risk when they're turned on with puppies, kittens and rabbits most likely to chew on them. 

Cats and kittens may also be tempted to climb the tree as it provides a high vantage point and this could easily cause the tree to topple over. The presents underneath the tree, especially edibles (e.g. nuts and chocolate), can also be problematic.


Image: Steve Jurvetson on Flickr
If your pets are obsessed with your tree and the decorations you can try barricading it with a playpen or placing the tree in a room your pets can't access. 

If you have some time, you can teach your pets that being on their beds or just leaving the tree alone is very rewarding. DO this by reinforcing (rewarding) that behaviour with high value treats, praise and favourite toys. Done frequently and consistently this will help reduce the likelihood your pets will focus on the tree. That said, when you're not home, the tree may be the most interesting thing for your pets to play with, so it's best to ensure they can't access it when you're out!

Festive foods:

We all like to over indulge at Christmas time but did you know some of the festive foods we consume  can be downright dangerous for our pets? The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) warns not to allow pets to eat these popular festive foods:

  1. Chocolate
  2. Nutmeg
  3. Grapes and raisins (including Christmas pudding and mince tarts)
  4. Avocado
  5. Macadamia nuts
  6. Onion and garlic
  7. Turkey skin, pork crackling, sausages and other fatty meats
  8. Alcohol

If consumed, even in small quantities, these foods can cause illness and be potentially toxic. If you suspect your dog has been poisoned, call your vet immediately for advice.


Fireworks:

Celebratory fireworks come hand in hand with Christmas and New Years Eve. As much as we love the raucous cracking explosions of colour across the night sky, fireworks cause many of our pets to run for cover, literally. 

Fear of loud noises is completely normal and is a survival mechanisms in animals. However, when the fear becomes chronic it's called a phobia. Dogs, particularly, can suffer from a phobia of fireworks causing a range of symptoms include pacing, panting, barking, whining, house soiling, attempting to escape the home or backyard (particularly when home alone). Some dogs become so terrified they cause damage to themselves and the home in their attempts to escape the noisy light show.

If your dog is scared of fireworks it's best not to leave them home alone, especially if you have a fireworks display scheduled for your local area. Bringing your dog inside, drawing the curtains and having the TV on with the volume high can help drown out the sound. 

Distractions such as a puzzle toy filled with high value treats given to your dog when fireworks start can help take your dog's mind off the scary event and help create a positive association with them. In extreme cases, fast action anti-anxiety medications may be required to help your dog cope. This should be discussed with your veterinarian.

Ensure your pet's microchip and ID tag details are up to date in case they do manage to escape your property. This will make it much easier for people to reunite you with your lost pet. 

Professional help is available if your dog is fearful or phobic of fireworks (and thunderstorms, as they often occur at the same time of year) and should be sought. Look for a well qualified and reputable dog trainer (who specialises in treating fears and phobias), a qualified animal behaviourist or a veterinary behaviourist.

By keeping these potential dangers in mind you and your pet are sure to stay safe and enjoy the silly season together. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Lead Reactivity Part 2: How to avoid or resolve it

As discussed in Part 1, lead reactivity can be a serious problem that should not be ignored, especially if it's developed into its more aggressive form. The good news is the behaviour can be avoided or, if it’s already a problem, successfully modified.




Avoiding Lead Reactivity

There's a lot you can do to help avoid your puppy or adult dog from developing lead reactivity. Remember, most lead reactivity and aggression, whether towards people, other dogs, animals or inanimate objects, develops due to past unpleasant or scary experiences. Try to avoid such experiences by reading and responding appropriately to your dogs behaviour and body language. This is easier said than done, as research suggests people are not proficient at correctly interpreting dog behaviour and emotions. You can read more about how to accurately interpret canine body language here and here and see a quick video demonstration here and a more detailed one here. If you notice your dog is uncomfortable in a situation, move them away until they relax again. Remember when your dog is on lead, and feels unsafe or threatened for any reason, their escape option (flight response) is not available and they’re much more likely to use aggression (fight response) in an effort to make the scary thing go away. It’s up to us to ensure we can accurately read our dogs (and others) to avoid placing them in situations in which they resort to reactivity and aggression.

In addition, work on making outings on the lead extra positive. Most dogs already love going for a walk because of the novel sights and smells and the opportunity to explore. However you can boost and help maintain the positive association with things your dog encounters during walks (e.g. cars, bikes, other dogs, strangers, kids etc) by pairing them with things your dog values (e.g. high value treats, pats, praise, favourite toys, games etc). By doing this extra work, you can help negate any mildly negative experiences your dog may have. Also work on rewarding your dog for calm and compliant behaviour while on lead. This is also helpful for dogs that become overly excited and frustrated when on lead. So many dog owners underestimate the importance of teaching their puppy how to walk nicely on the lead – a foundation behaviour which will provide the building blocks of a great relationship. Learn more about lead training your puppy and adult dog here and here. This might be stating the obvious but dogs don’t come automatically programmed to walk nicely on the lead and be model canine citizens. They need to be taught how and, as their guardians, it is our responsibility to dedicate the time and patients to teach them.


A happy and relaxed dog
(Image: Alex Pearson on Flickr)

Resolving Lead Reactivity

If your dog is already lead reactive or aggressive you firstly need to identify the trigger or triggers for the behaviour (e.g. other dogs, strangers, trucks etc) and the critical distance (or threshold) at which your dog begins to show early signs of fear, stress or anxiety. These are often subtle (e.g. lip licking, panting, ears held back, hard eyes, paw lift, focused attention on the trigger etc) and preclude the more overt signs of reactivity and aggression (e.g. barking, growling, pulling on the lead, pilo-erection). Next you need to work on changing your dog’s emotional response to the trigger (e.g. seeing another dog) from a negative association due to fear to a positive association while under threshold. Sounds easy enough but what does this involve? 

The most common approach is a combination of desensitisation (gradual exposure to the stimulus under threshold - with enough distance between it and your dog so as your dog remains relatively relaxed and engaged in the training) and Classic Counter-Conditioning (pairing the presence of the stimulus with something pleasurable such as favourite treats). For example, your dog sees another dog and immediately receives a favourite treat. After several short sessions pairing the just the presence of another dog with high value treats you want to switch to Operant Conditioning in which your dog learns to become more comfortable with the approach of another dog and looks to you for reinforcement. This is when you can ask for and reinforce, a known behaviour such as 'sit' or 'look'. This positive reinforcement training helps to activate the reward pathway in the brain releasing Dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for producing a natural “high” (but more on behavioural neuroscience in a future post!). With consistency and repetition, your dog learns that the previously scary stimulus now predicts good things and no longer poses danger. The result, over time, should be a marked reduction in reactive and aggressive behaviour.

There are numerous protocols available, based on these principles, that have been developed by experts to assist you to work on resolving your dog's lead reactivity. Choose one that’s feasible and realistic for you. Here’s a few I recommend:


Image: MarkScottAustinTX on Flickr

Things don’t always go to plan in the real world. You may encounter situations out of your control that elicit a reactive or aggressive response even after you’ve made some good progress (e.g. another dog slipping it’s lead and running up to your dog or a kid on a skateboard seemingly appearing out of nowhere). The key is to pick up where you left off and keep going. There is no quick fix. Dogs, like us, are continuously learning based on their experiences. It’s up to us to guide and enhance their experiences as much as possible to optimise their welfare and wellbeing.

Finally, if you feel you don't have the skills or knowledge to work to resolve your dog's lead reactivity or aggression, or you have tried several things that haven’t worked, then please seek professional help. Doing so is in everyone's best interest: Yours, your dog's and the community's.

Lead Reactivity Part 1: How it develops and why it’s a liability

Lead reactivity and/or aggression is a common complaint I receive from my clients. Unfortunately, too many dog owners contact me after a significant incident has taken place even though the behaviour has been present, albeit in a milder form, for a period of time.

Having a dog that aggressively barks, lunges or pulls towards other dogs or people can be a source of stress and embarrassment. This often results in people being reluctant to walk their dog or continuing the walks but not knowing how to resolve the issue. Either way, this just perpetuates the problem. We know from neuroscience that "neurons that fire together, wire together" meaning the longer a behaviour persists, the more ingrained it becomes.

(Image: Mr.TinDC on Flickr)

Why are some dogs lead reactive/aggressive?
The most common reason for developing lead reactivity that I see in my clients’ dogs is fear due to past unpleasant or scary experiences. For example, a dog that is attacked by another dog while on lead may subsequently develop lead aggression when it encounters other dogs in an attempt to protect itself. Similarly, a dog that’s been hit by a car may display reactive barking or lunging when it sees moving cars during a walk.  It’s important to understand that a lack of prior positive socialization experiences can also result in lead reactivity/aggression. For example, dogs that have not been socialized with a range of other dogs (of varying breeds and breed types) may be fear aggressive when approached by other dogs. Similarly, a dog that’s never seen a person on a bicycle or skateboard may lunge aggressively at a cyclist or skateboarder who passes close by. This is called the “fight or flight response” and it’s a survival mechanism.

When a dog (or person or other animal) finds itself in a scary situation it either runs away or confronts the source of their fear in an attempt to make it go away. When on lead, the escape option is no longer available so using aggression in an attempt to create distance between themselves and the threat is more likely. Here’s an analogy; imagine you are walking down a dark alley at night and suddenly a dark figure lunges towards you demanding your wallet. What would you do? You’re either going to attempt to run away and escape the situation or, if you’re grabbed and can’t escape, you will fight back with everything you’ve got.

Normal dog behaviour
Dogs normally greet one another from the side, in an arc, rather than head on. When we walk them on lead along pathways we may force them to greet each other in an unnatural way. When two leashed dogs meet they are restrained and unable to move away from one another if they feel unsure or threatened. Many owners keep their dog on a tight lead when meeting other dogs “just in case” however the tension is felt by the dog and can exacerbate their stress. The dogs may all of a sudden start barking and lunging at one another (fight response) because the option to increase the distance between each other was not available (flight response). But get this; even if the dogs didn’t bark at each other, it’s wrong to assume that they were fine. Most dog owners are actually quite bad at reading their dog's body language and often miss subtle signs of fear, stress and anxiety such as pacing, panting when it’s not hot, lip licking, shaking off, paw lift and low tail carriage.


(Image: IIdar Sagdejev / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Furthermore, people often fail to recognize inappropriate and rude behaviour in their own “friendly” dogs. Bounding up to other dogs, jumping on or body slamming them or getting all up in their face is extremely rude behaviour and could easily cause a fight. This inability to communicate appropriately also tends to be the result of inadequate socializing with other dogs, particularly past the puppy stage. Many dog owners don’t realize that socialization is an ongoing process and attending puppy classes is not enough. These dogs tend to carry their puppy style greeting into adulthood when it’s no longer tolerated by other dogs. When another dog growls or barks at the rude greeter it’s owner chastises the other person for their dog's "aggressive" behaviour.


Being on the receiving end of a lead reactive dog
If you’ve ever been on the recieveing end of a lead reactive dog you will understand what a frightening experience it can be. If not, here’s an example of what happened to me. A few months back, when I was 36 weeks pregnant with my second child, I had an awful experience with two lead reactive dogs. My husband and I took our 15-month old son and dog, Joseph, to a local park. After a lovely walk we stopped at the playground to let our son play and explore. While he was happily playing I was standing nearby watching with our dog, a very placid Labrador, on lead. Several minutes later I heard loud barking and turned around to see a man sitting on a bench nearby, his two dogs straining on their leads, intently focused on our dog who remained calm and quiet. One appeared to be a Rottweiler mix and the other a Staffy mix. Upon seeing the dogs behaving in this manner, and realizing the man wasn’t going to move away, I immediately walked in the opposite direction behind a large piece of play equipment. My intention being to create distance and a visual barrier between Joseph and I and the two reactive dogs. 

The man remained on the bench and was struggling to control his dogs. Just as I was about to move further away I heard the man yell out and both his dogs came running up to me and Joseph, who was still on lead. It was an incredibly tense moment and my heart was racing. I could tell from the stiff body language of the other dogs that they were far from relaxed and friendly. After what seemed like an eternity the dogs’ male owner came running over, his female companion close behind, attempting to restrain his dogs. There were lots of young children in the playground at the time and my husband was holding our young son a meter or so away from us. The dog owners apologised profusely and remained there with their dogs. We immediately left the park. 

At the time I was so angry and in shock at the whole situation. All I wanted to do was ensure my family was safe, so I didn’t engage in what could have been a very valuable conversation with those dogs’ owners. I am so thankful that Joseph is such a placid and social dog. It seemed as though he knew it was in his best interest to remain calm and allow the dogs to sniff him intensely and not react. Had it been our late boxer, Archie, in the same situation I know the outcome would have been so much worse! I realise now that the dogs’ owners’ were just naive but that doesn’t change the fact their dogs are a huge liability. Given the same situation with a less placid or anti-social dog, the outcome could have been dire.


(Image: Kumarrrr / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Again, just the other day while enjoying a walk with my boys in the pram and husband walking our dog we were confronted by a mother with her two small children walking a large American Bulldog. Upon seeing us she attempted to walk her dog (who was straining on it’s lead, body stiff, focussing intensely on our dog) behind a tree just off the footpath. I asked her if she’d like us to cross the road and her response was “lets see how it goes.” Really? Let's not! My husband immediately walked Joseph to the other side of the road passing the dog with as much distance as possible. 

As I walked past the family and their obviously anxious dog the mother laughed it off, assuring me her dog was “the most beautiful dog in the world at home” but that he behaves this way because he was “attacked by another dog as a puppy”. This is unfortunate for sure and if I had a dollar for every time I heard a client say those words… The problem is, the explanation for the behaviour doesn’t fix the behaviour, nor does it keep the community safe. As dog owners we have a responsibility to keep our dogs safe and the people and dogs around us safe as well. If you have a dog that’s reactive or aggressive towards other dogs or people you have a responsibility to your dog and your community to seek professional help from a reputable dog trainer or qualified animal behaviourist.  

Having regularly been called in as an expert witness, to conduct temperament assessments on dogs that  injured a person or another dog, I can assure you their owners also proclaimed how great their dogs are with kids and dogs they know. However that’s not the point. The point is that these issues need to be address before they become serious and endanger others. 

Read Lead Reactivity Part 2 to learn how to avoid your dog from developing lead reactivity/aggression in the first place (because prevention is better than cure!) and what to do if your dog is already lead reactive/aggressive.

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