Discussing dog breeds, dog-adoption, and the human-canine connection.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Old English Sheepdog

An online friend was wondering about a breed of dog that would be big enough to assist as a mobility service dog, good natured  enough to be part of a family with grandchildren visitors, and with a capacity to herd the family cow in from a field. The Old English Sheepdog fits the bill.

Trainable, affectionate, natural herders, and having a sense of playfulness, this is a breed that has a great deal of underutilized potential. Their lack of popularity may be due to the rumor that their coats are hard to keep - in fact no more so than any long haired breed, or it may be due to their need for exercise. As with any breed, this is not a breed for everyone, it is a breed for families and individuals who want a furry, friendly, active companion.

When one of my friends had her first toddler she chose a Sheepdog to help her watch over her son. The family had a very large fenced in yard and when the little boy would stray to the far end of the yard, the Sheepdog would help my friend by herding him back towards the house. Unlike some herding breeds which use nipping at the heels to try and move children - an unwelcome behavior - the Sheepdog would simply use her body to block the toddlers movement in every direction but the one she wanted him to move in. Of course the child would get frustrated but the dog would patiently endure his screams of outrage and he would eventually give in and move in the desired direction.

(My friend was supervising - this isn't a case of the dog being used as a nanny - just an aid.)

 Sheepdogs tend to have an affinity for children and other animals, making them good candidates for busy households. That said, this is not a breed that can be left alone in the yard all day and expected to behave well for 20 minutes of family time in the evening. These are very people orientated dogs; modern Sheepdogs affinity for being out with animals has been adjusted but they still require a sense of belonging - they now want to belong with people, in the middle of what the family is doing.

They'll be happy to help the children practice soccer in the backyard, train for track and field, then flop out in the evening to watch a show. They do need to be given some kind of outlet for their energy, or they may create their own activity. Bored and under exercised dogs usually become destructive dogs.

With a good nature and at times a bit of silliness, this is generally a cheerful breed that will be a welcome addition to those homes that are willing to provide the lifestyle this breed thrives in. There are breed specific rescues working to place adult Old English Sheepdogs and the breed also turns up from time to time in all-breed rescues.

If choosing to buy a puppy in North America, look for breeders who are members of the Old English Sheepdog Club which has a code of ethics breeders must adhere to. This code includes testing for health problems; at one point Sheepdog's life expectancy was down to about 7 years due to health complications. Better breeding now places the average back where most large breeds are - around 11 years. If buying a puppy outside North America, again, look for a breeder who is conducting the appropriate health tests on all adults before breeding.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Miniature horses to replace dogs?

Service animals today....

In the U.S. service animals have traditionally been dogs.
The history of service dogs began with the guide dog program, which trains dogs to guide the blind.
The web site for the first and still largest program in the country can be found here: http://www.seeingeye.org/

Under current federal law - the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) -  service dogs are
1) allowed anywhere a disabled person needs to go and
2) are dogs (more about point 2 in a moment.)

For a while there was an increasing use of a range of animals that were called service animals -- but when it comes to current legislation, a service dog is the one animal that needs to be given access everywhere - stores, restaurants, places of businesses, schools etc. that a disabled person goes.

Except when the service dog is not a dog - the dog in some circumstances can instead be a service miniature horse.

Yes, that's right, out of all other possible, potential service animals, the only other one that is allowed under Federal Law to be given the same access to businesses, schools, restaurants etc. is a miniature horse. The horse does have to be house-trained and wear special shoes - so he doesn't scuff up floors - and generally weighs 100 pounds or under.

Miniature horses are preferred for certain types of service for several reasons:
  • They have a significantly longer lifespan than does a dog
  • They may be more effective for people with disabilities which affect the person's balance
  • People with allergies to dogs may not have horse allergies
  • A miniature horse has a much longer working life than a dog; a dog might be able to comfortably work for six or seven years following training, a horse can potentially work 20+ years.

Note: I am talking about service animals, not therapy or companion or other kind of animals.

Legislation has a different standard for therapy animals, which while they may be allowed in housing where a disabled person lives, are not given the same legal access outside a disabled person's home that a service animal is given.

I'm wondering though, now that miniature horses have their hooves in the door so to speak, how much longer before they start gently shouldering canine companions out of the way altogether? Are miniature horses positioning themselves, perhaps, to become the new version of 'man's best friend'?

Granted, they won't fit into a bejeweled, designer handbag the way some dogs can - at least not yet. Given however, that the miniature horses being trained for service are weighing 100 pounds or less, how far away are we from the day of real pocket ponies?

How much longer before miniature horses try hoofing over Dalmatians as the preferred companion for fire houses? Then we begin the long, slippery slope into miniature horse herds guarding warehouses, trampling invaders just as their Hollywood predecessors used to stampede cowboys in the Western movies of yesteryear...and displacing the longstanding strong hold of 'guard dog duty' that canines have previously held a monopoly on.

 Miniature horses will then try nosing the Labrador, Beagle, Shepherds etc.  out of work sniffing for smuggled goods in baggage and illicit materials in vehicles crossing the boarder.

Yes, it may just be a matter of time - one morning you're going to wake up and find that your loving Fido has been replaced by a four legged friend of a different variety. And when that day comes, remember we warned you of it here first.

P.S. - Did you know that dogs are sometimes available for adoption after retiring from service, or after they begin service dog training but are in some small way not suitable to enter service life? Did you know that volunteers help raise many guide dogs for the first year of their lives, assisting them to prepare for being good canine citizens?
Did you know you, or an organization that you volunteer with, can sponsor a guide dog in training?
Food for thought as we help support our canine friends in their battle to not be replaced by horses....

Friday, May 17, 2013

Don't worry, you're not feeding a wolf:

What you really need to remember when feeding a dog.

 I admit it - I love my dogs. In fact, I don't understand the commercials where actors are given the line, "We love our dog like he is family." I consider my canine companions family, not "like" not "almost" - they're part and parcel; I've not only moved across the nation but from one nation to another and no more considered parting with my companions than my parents considered putting my siblings and I up for adoption when they moved. (I'm going to give my parents the benefit of the doubt on this one - given how we sometimes behaved that may have been more seriously pondered, for a moment....)

What I am about to say is also not meant as a criticism of those who enjoy cooking for their dogs, or who spend a great deal of time worrying about what their dogs eat. I personally have given a rather large chunk of my brain and time to considering ingredients in dog food, home-cooked food for dogs, etc. And if RAW or something similar speaks to you, so be it. I have no interest in trying to convert anyone to anything food related.

This post is for those who may feel guilty because they do not feed their dogs RAW, or BARF or cook for their dogs, or who cannot - or will not - afford the most meat based food out there for their dogs. Or for those who just are not sure what to feed your canine companion.

Take a deep breath. You are not a bad person if you do not cook for your dog, or prepare the dog's food from scratch. Or if you cannot afford the most expensive kibble on the market. Do not get sucked into the hype, hyperbole, or advertising. Your feeding a dog, not a wolf, and evolutionarily and genetically there is a rather significant difference.

 I will point to several scientific studies that back up what I'm talking about. First, there was the study reported in January 2013 in Nature magazine, and online on the Scientific American website, by E. Axelsson and colleagues from Uppsala University in Sweden. Their findings include that a significant step in the transition to domesticated from wild animal (dogs from wolves) includes lengthening of the intestinal tract specifically for the purpose of the animal being able to digest larger quantities of starch.

An Assyrian hunting dog - ancient evidence of early genetic changes
Those early wolves which choose the relative safety of scavenging leftovers from humans vs. fighting other predators for survival and sporadic food, became genetically modified to survive on more bread crusts and scraps, than on meat. Think about it - meat was a high value item and the majority of that meat was going to feed people, not canines. Both this study and another recent study indicate that wolves self-selected for domestication, versus earlier ideas that people may have stolen wolf pups to  intentionally domesticate.

 The other recent study was published in Molecular Biology and Evolution (and synopsized in the Science section of The New York Times; the Times reporter also interviewed lead research scientist Dr. Ya-Ping Zhang.) Dr. Zhang's work has found that after dogs and wolves genetically split, dogs genetically went a different path (remember, the oldest surviving breed of dog is the Chinese Shar Pei, decidedly not wolves.)

Some of the differences include a differently developed pre-frontal cortex, which drives dog behavior; their sense of smell has been enhanced as has their willingness to both work with and defer to people. Dr. Zhang and the international scientific community he researches with also suspect that the idea that some wolf pups were stolen by people for domestication is false; their work supports the theory that some wolves chose to stay near human communities, and from them a different animal emerged.

Again, this would be an animal that was willing to stay near humans for food scraps, rather than aggressively seek out fresh meat.

Now I'm not suggesting for a moment that people feed their dogs bread crusts and other scraps of food. Dog longevity and health has improved as a result of the development of nutritionally balanced dog food, just as human health and life span has significantly improved since early humans and scavenger wolves started rubbing shoulders. I am suggesting that we all be aware of the emotional appeal that advertizes make to us when they suggest that the source of our dog's food needs to be similar to a) the diet of a wolf, or b) the exact same quality of food we would eat.

I would also remind people that in very industrialized, often urban lifestyles we have become fussy about our own food to an extent that is not necessary for our own survival - while I personally am too OCD to eat food taken from dumpsters, I do recognize that we throw out still eatable food because of how it appears, versus it's actual safety for consumption.

Individual dogs may have allergies to certain grains and/or protien sources.
Lil the Labrador for example, gets increased wax build up in her ears when she eats anything with a chicken base. This indicates a mild allergy to chicken, so I avoid feeding her chicken based foods.
Jenny the Collie does not do well with food that is fish based - she starts to develop a waxy buildup on her skin. As a result, I tend to feed lamb or beef based kibble to my dogs and they all do well, with good coats, health, joints, etc.

Cavaet - at times I give into my own human emotional guilt that I should be feeding "better" food, with higher meat content, while at other times I logically choose a less expensive food with a slightly lower meat content.

Nada, nothing, no difference. I can spend $39 for 40 pounds of food, or $50 for 30 pounds, and there is no impact on my dog's health. It is strictly my own inner need that I am feeding - and I do feed it semi-frequently - but I try to recognize what I am doing when I do it - satisfying my own need, not my dogs. I feel better when I feed them a more meat based food because I have internalized so much of the judgement of other dog people in this particular arena.

Now some people will argue you will see significantly less waste product if you feed a more meat based food. This will be true if one feeds a food that is primarily grain based, vs. foods that have more meat. This is not true when one switches between meat based foods and one food has a few more starches than the other. Dogs' intestinal tracts have developed over thousands of years to make better use of starches than a wolf can, as a result, dogs can do very nicely on a meat/starch food and digest a significant portion of both food sources.

For those of you worried about what to feed your dog a recap:
  • The packaging on the outside of a dog food bag/can/ container is designed to appeal to you
  • Advertizes, and other dog people, may try and convince you there is only one way to feed a dog - not true, in part because dogs have different allergies/needs
  • Dogs can thrive on a variety of diets
  • Unlike wolves, dogs can digest larger quantities of starch
  • Look for Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) certification that a food meets a dog's nutritional needs
  • Learn to read labels - the first five ingredients listed make up the majority of what is in the food

As someone who has read labels for decades, and fed generations of dogs, I will also add a few of my personal observations:
  • Dogs are most likely to have a problem with foods containing high quantities of corn or soy
  • Usually a dog with dry skin will respond well to foods with a fish based protien
  • Dogs with excess gas often respond favorably to a change in protein sources (I know Boxers who have done well on fish based proteins)
  • No one protein source works for all dogs - humans have modified dogs genetically and created a large number of sometimes unintended small variables in their immune, digestive, and other systems

Don't forget the significance of adequate hydration, i.e., dogs need a lot of water. I've started adding water to my dogs' kibble and this has benefited Jenny's ability to eliminate and reduced the amount of time Lil and Gracie spend at the water bowl. Clean water and AAFCO certified food, affection, exercise, and guidelines/socialization - that is what your dog needs.  A lot of the rest of us we do for our own needs. And that is okay, as long as we recognize our compulsions for what they are and do not judge other dog people because they do not share our compulsions.

Final confession - I have to fight an internal desire to lecture people when I see them buying what I consider an 'inferior' dog food, when an alternate food which I judge to be 'better' is available for a similar cost - but perhaps at a different location. I'm beginning to think dog food choices are maybe closer to religion and we just shouldn't foist our beliefs onto others unless they ask.

If dogs were allowed to choose their own food....

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Bold Lead Designs' Infinity Lead: Stop the dog from pulling on a leash

I don't normally do product reviews.

Through another person's blog, however, I received some intel about a leash/head halter design that was light-weight and could fit basically any sized dog...and it WORKS. Since I live with a Labrador who appears to believe she was meant to be an oxen who pulls her walker like a plow through an unfurrowed field, I was very interested.

I ordered - paid for - one of these devices and IT WORKS. In fact, it worked for both the Lab and the Bull Terrier (the Collie is very polite and would never dream of trying to drag a human on a leash.) I thought there are other people out there trying to walk dogs who pull like sled dogs without a sled, so I have to share the information about this product.

Easier than usually walking Lil

Note: no one asked me to review this, I have not received anything in return for writing this review, and I liked this product enough to buy and gift one to my sister whose adopted Boxer mix pulls on the leash when excited.

I will also note that in the past I have used other products. I do like the Holt head halter however, it takes me a minute to get it on and Lil the Lab is not good at sitting patiently. Gracie cannot be walked on a Holt head halter (she rears up and can swipe it off her head, while walking.) I liked the idea of one device that I could switch between the two girls for sudden use. I liked the idea of something that was fairly quick to get off and on, and that was lightweight and small enough to fit into the front pocket of my jeans.

The Infinity Lead is made in Colorado, sold on the web through Bold Lead Designs, one of handful of specialized products they make:http://boldleaddesigns.com/product-category/infinity-training-aids/ .
It is a deceptively simple looking device. I use the four foot model, it also comes in six foot, and in leather.

The directions on putting this on the dog have the handler start by making the large loop - big enough to go over the dog's neck.

The loop is then flipped to form a figure eight, with the front of the figure eight fitting over the dog's nose.

Note: It may look in the picture to the right like the lead is coming down, below the head. No.
That is a second lead holding the "model" while I take pictures, as she has been known to bolt without warning. One of the differences with this design is that the lead comes up, and is at the back of the dog's head - if you look closely you can just see a piece of it behind Lil's head.

The leather tab fits tightly but is to be slid up/down to hold the correct size for the dog's head. It works well. When placed on the dog correctly the tab is in back of the head, between the ears.

Getting a clear picture once this was on proved a bit challenging. Not only was the day ending but Lil still found lots of interesting things to look at so we got a lot of blurred photos.

 Note that there is a metal clip to attach to the standard collar, should one's dog manage to slip their head out. Gracie tried to get this off when I tried it on her, and she did manage to put a small snag in the material, which can be seen in some of Lil's pictures. I think we'll eventually get the leather version.

Both Lil and Gracie tried to pull on this and both stopped pulling immediately. It is advertised as a training device that focuses the dog's attention on the handler. It works very well as designed for Lil. Gracie, as always, focused initially on trying to get it off as we walked. She wasn't successful and she would occasionally try to rub it off but it did work. I didn't get any pictures of Gracie tonight.

Notice the loose leash, and in the above picture the dog's ability to still open her mouth, lick her lips; it would be easy for the dog to drink with this on. After a few attempted pulls Lil stopped trying to pull. She walked nicely on the leash just as we've practiced doing but which normally doesn't happen.

On those occasions where Lil did get distracted and stopped suddenly, the back piece may have slid a little lower than it is supposed to sit - however, it did not affect her, cause discomfort, or cause her to stop listening. Lil's always had less focus than a squirrel on caffeine. At least now we can walk together while she takes in everything around us, without my arm being dislocated.