By Debby Kay ©December 2014 all rights reserved
Some dangerous threats to your service dog are apparent: for example, a falling tree or speeding car. There are other threats however, that are not so obvious and it is those I want to focus on for this blog.
One danger I see repeatedly at my workshops is a lack of handler awareness. New handlers in particular are so concerned with what they are doing that they forget to watch their dogs. One eye should always be on what your dog is doing, looking for any clue from their body posture as to what they are thinking; in this manner you can anticipate and perhaps prevent a possible catastrophe. It takes practice to develop that watchful eye but it is an essential skill for keeping your dog safe. Dogs are like Hoovers, vacuuming up anything on the ground, whether it is be edible or not. This habit has led to many sick dogs ending up at the emergency vet’s office.
Teaching the “leave it” command is useful for avoiding situations where your dog might be eyeing some tempting morsel of moldy spit tobacco wad on the sidewalk like it was a choice filet mignon. There are a couple of ways to teach this, the one I find most useful, however, starts when we are teaching the pups to walk on the lead. I will put a small bowl with a nice treat in it on the ground and walk the pup by it; at first a few feet away and gradually working in closer. As soon as I see the pup starting to look at the bowl I will tell them “leave it” and then ask them to look at me and when they do they get a very tasty morsel. With patience you can get a puppy in one lesson to learn to ignore the food in the dish. With repetition you can teach the puppy to ignore just about anything on the ground and instead look up to you.
When you stop to talk to someone, don’t forget to keep an eye on what your dog is doing. They should be sitting or lying by your side. If the person you are chatting with has a dog, you need to be especially careful of a potential conflict between the dogs if one of them offers threatening stares. All these things are related to training and handler experience, for sure, and are pretty straightforward.
Not so straightforward, however, at least when it comes to training the service dog, is the training of the body. Many programs lack any type of physical conditioning program that allows the dog to be more aware of their body, stretches, and develops muscles and tendons in ways that helps prevent injury and generally keeps the dog more fit. These things become important when a dog has to get into a tight seating space, ride in small quarters in a vehicle, remain for some time curled up in a small space on an airplane or under a table at a restaurant. When the dog gets up, if they are not taught how to stretch and get their body ready for work, there is a strong potential for injury. Sometimes the wear and tear on the body is not apparent with a young dog, but it is very apparent as the dogs get older when repeated bad habits will begin to manifest as restricted movement. I have had several working Labradors over the age of 17 who remained flexible and moving up to their passing. I attribute their good physical condition to breeding but in larger part to an excellent physical conditioning program.
The last threat to the service dog is that of hidden chemical dangers in the environment. As we move into winter, with ice and snow affecting many areas where the service dogs are working, it is really important to be aware of the chemicals used to treat these conditions on the sidewalks and parking lots where we will be walking our dog. Your dog absorbs all these chemicals through their feet, and if they are in a high enough concentration, they can be highly toxic. Sometimes, however, we may not see or realize the residue left on the pavement and this build-up on the dogs’ pads might in itself not be enough to make them sick until they lie down and start to clean their feet. You may want to carry a set of boots for your dog if you live in an area where this is a constant threat to your dog. Other threats in the environment are some types of chemicals that have been used to treat the common areas where we might be taking our dog for exercise or an airing. Most companies that apply chemicals will post flags or signs when it is done, but you can not always count on this, so it is best to stay with areas where you know how they are maintained.
Since dogs lie on the floor and are otherwise close to floor all other times, it is also important to pay attention to what is used to clean the floors; the same is true for carpeting. If you are buying new carpeting for your house or office, it would be best to choose a natural fiber and one that is not treated with stain protection. Constant exposure to these types of chemicals are not healthy. You can check on the status of anything you buy by doing an Internet search on the manufacturer’s website. Those few minutes of your time can help your dog live a healthier, longer life.
Wishing everyone a joyous holiday season and prosperous new year.