Articles Index/Living With Your Dog
Posted 09/01/08


I've been thinking a lot about danger lately. We have an understanding that safety is the most important factor in our lives and the lives of our dogs. We are their owners and care takers, they depend on us to make smart decisions on their behalf. We warn each other frequently of real and perceived dangers because one can never be too cautious. If one dog's life is saved, it's worth it. I'll grant that on the surface that makes perfect sense: we don't intentionally partake in activities with the idea of injuring or possibly even killing our dogs. It's beyond the surface that things start to fall apart.

Terriers, I think most of us agree, are dare devils. There isn't a single terrier breed standard I can think of that calls for a placid `lap dog' temperament. They thrive on adventure, and aren't, or shouldn't be, scared of much. The history of most terrier breeds is full of stories of heroism and foolishness in dogs who would not give up, going after the prey with their last ounce of strength. This norm is no longer. The dogs are certainly up for it, but we've learned to be more careful; our dogs, these members of our family, should not be put at risk that way.

There are still those who hunt with their dogs the way the old-timers did, and if we're not among them we're concerned. A dog disappears into a groundhog den under tree roots and seemingly gets stuck, and we all shake our heads and remark at the foolishness of the owner, the lack of care, and all that jazz. Our minds are full of blame for the owner. We ask how could anyone put their dog in such danger.

Many terrier breeds, my own Norfolk prime among them, are bitty little things, and agility competition is strenuous. Dogs can fall off the dogwalk; get catapulted off the teeter, crash going through the tire jump, and get hurt. All true. In fact my dog, Stamp has fallen off the dogwalk twice, and my daughter's dog, Fleet, was catapulted off the teeter. Stamp wasn't injured and neither was Fleet, but they easily could have been. Why would anyone take such risks?

Dogs who hike off leash with their owners in the woods can disappear in an instant, never to be seen again. They can be killed by coyotes, bears, or mountain lions; attacked by birds of prey, even drown in strong currents. Little dogs follow their owners on horseback and get stepped on, kicked, injured and killed. There are so many terrible things that can happen to those who aren't careful.

What's Acceptable?

Dangers are out there, that's certain, and it's our responsibility to take the best care we can of these dogs put in our care, but where do we draw the line? Of course we worry when things go wrong, but we've got to balance that with the joy of dogs allowed to do what they were bred to do. Should we, now far evolved from the founders of the breeds, stick to the safety of earthdog tests? What of other dangers? How far should we go to avoid the possibility of injury? There aren't any easy answers. We've all got to figure out for ourselves where we draw the line.

My own feeling is that my dogs are bred to be game little fellows, bold risk takers who thrive on their adrenaline rush. I let them run in the woods with me, chase after varmints, do agility, swim in the ocean. They fetch sticks even though I know firsthand the possible danger from splinters. Over the years I've had my share of accidents and heartaches, and of course when something happens I feel terribly guilty. On the other hand, the guilt dissipates fast when I see the sheer joy in their demeanor, the pleasure with which they confront life. My dogs may occasionally take risks, but they're having a grand time doing so, and to me that's what they were bred to be like.

If we're not going to confine our dogs to the `safety' of a kennel or strictly companion life, what can we do to make sure they're as safe as possible? No matter what your interests, having a good knowledge of first aid, both human and canine is imperative.

How to Prepare for Adventure

Whatever activity you're about to try, it is important to find mentors and not try to go it alone. Experienced hunters go out in groups, and with a plan, not just heading out willy-nilly for `adventure'. There are no rules that apply to all activities and events, so knowing how to navigate one sport safely does not necessarily help with others. Nevertheless, there are two bits of training that can be life savers no matter what you're doing with your dog. The biggest gift an owner can give their dog is to teach the dog to come promptly when called; a close second is teaching the dog to stay solidly on command. For some activities a collar with identification is definitely a life saver, for others, notably hunting and agility, tags hanging from a collar are dangerous as the dog can get snagged. If you're taking your dog swimming, particularly anywhere with a current, don't forget a life jacket, and if you're boating use common sense and don't tie the dog in the boat! Dock diving is something a lot of dogs enjoy, but make sure you've checked that the water is deep enough for letting your dog leap out.

Some sports that seem simple to learn are not as easy as they look. If you want to get into agility or Frisbee or flyball, find a class or take private lessons with someone who understands the risks and knows how to teach you and your dog to perform safely.

Worry Less -- Enjoy More

My own bias is that we should perhaps worry a little less about the risks that `other people' subject their dogs to by letting them be the tough little animals they were designed to be. There are much bigger dangers that get a lot less attention but destroy dogs just as surely, perhaps with even more regularity and quite possibly with less pleasure to the dog. Some of these dangers need good breeders to sort them out: genetic problems need to be on every breeder's mind, there's no excuse any more for not testing breeding stock before producing a litter. Dogs that die before their time because of hereditary defects that could have been prevented are really getting the short end of the stick.

If you're a breeder, keep abreast of health issues in your breed and make sure all your breeding stock is tested. Love your dogs as pets, but evaluate them ruthlessly as breeding stock. The world doesn't need more indiscriminately bred dogs, big winners or not, who produce puppies with heartbreakingly short lives. Dogs that do not get adequate socialization as babies and dogs from parents with questionable temperaments also often suffer from an early death by euthanasia as they fail to learn the skills needed to live in the human world, never having had a chance to enjoy life. If you're raising a litter, there's no excuse for not adequately socializing the pups. If you're too busy to socialize a litter, you're too busy to breed the litter.

Dogs who are allowed to be spoiled until the day they inflict a serious bite, not even knowing, since they'd always gotten their way before, that they were doing wrong, really suffer from lack of care. Teach your dogs the skills needed to live in human society. Don't just expect the poor dog to figure things out.

Dogs are Dogs -- Not Babies in Fur Coats

We aren't doing our dogs any kindness by infantilizing and humanizing them to the point of forgetting that they're actual adult beings (of another species). There's no need to be harsh to teach a dog what's expected.

And what of the many, many dogs, often even show dogs, who are fat? It is so common in some breeds for dogs to be shown fat that athletically fit dogs are spoken of as being `underweight'. In the world of pets we are surrounded by morbidly obese dogs, out of breath from just a short jaunt around the block. Don't assume your vet will tell you that your dog is fat; ask. Your vet doesn't want to alienate you and many have found that people are offended when told their dogs are fat, so they tread carefully rather than risk losing their patients.

A big plus about getting involved in things like earthdog, agility, hiking and swimming with your dog is that the more a dog exercises, the more the dog can eat. If you enjoy giving your dog lots of treats, that's fine, as long as the dog gets the corresponding amount of exercise.

There are, indeed, many dangers we need to protect our dogs from, but perhaps we could let them really enjoy being dogs while we start to tackle the real dangers.

(This article originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Just Terriers. Reprinted with author's permission.)

Sassie Joiris
ANTIC, March, 2008


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