Archive for the ‘Dogs’ Category

Look for the Look Away

Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

Pet Loss Bereavement Specialist Certification Course Available

Tuesday, January 21st, 2020
Pet Loss Partners has some exciting news.
They are offering an online Pet Loss Bereavement Specialist Certification Course in response to the many inquiries from people interested in the area of pet loss.
Their goal is to design a course that would give not only information about grief and pet loss but also specific and useable tools for helping grieving pet parents.

Cold Weather Can Kill Your Pet — Follow These Tips

Sunday, January 19th, 2020
from Mercola.com   Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker  January 18, 2020

STORY AT-A-GLANCE

  • Cold weather has arrived, which means it’s time to make sure your four-legged family members stay safe, warm and comfy over the next few months
  • Frigid temps are as hard on pets as they are on people; always keep your pet indoors with you during the winter months
  • Additional tips to help keep dogs and cats safe and healthy this winter include taking them for a veterinary wellness exam and ensuring they get regular exercise

Winter is in full swing, and unfortunately, cold weather can be just as hard on our pets as it is on us — especially dogs and cats left outdoors for any length of time (which I never, ever recommend). Pets left outdoors in cold weather can fall victim to a long list of injuries and illnesses, including hypothermia and frostbite.

The following is a list of things you can do to help keep the furry members of your family warm, safe, and healthy over the next few months.

Tips to Keep Pets Safe and Warm All Winter

Keep them indoors — I recommend keeping cats inside at all times (unless you have a secure outdoor cat enclosure for use during nice weather, or you take him on walks using a harness), but especially during winter. Accompany your dog outdoors for potty walks or to get some exercise. When you get cold enough to go back inside, chances are your dog is also cold.

If your dog is a large breed, chances are he’ll be able to tolerate cold temps and snow much better than a smaller dog. If your pet has a condition like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease or an endocrine disorder, it can compromise his ability to regulate his own body heat.

Pets with a chronic disease and very young and older animals are more vulnerable to the cold than healthy youngsters and adults. Also never leave your pet unattended in a car in cold weather. Hypothermia can be just as deadly as heatstroke.

Let their coats grow — Don’t shave or clip your pet’s coat short during the winter months. A longer coat will keep her warmer. And make sure long-haired pets are brushed and groomed regularly, since matted fur can interfere with their ability to regulate their body temperature.
Make sure they get regular exercise — It’s really important to maintain your pet’s physical condition year-round. If you allow your dog to become a couch potato all winter, you increase his risk of injury when he starts exercising again in the spring. Especially if you live in a location that gets really cold and wet during the winter months, it can be challenging to ensure your dog stays physically active. Some ideas to consider:

  • A hydrotherapy or warm water dog pool
  • An indoor dog park (this is also a great idea for those of you who live in climates where the summers are too hot for strenuous outdoor exercise)
  • Indoor agility or tracking training, or nose work
  • Cross-country skiing

Kitties can actually be easier to keep exercised during bad weather: 10 ways to help your cat exercise.

Provide sweaters for shorthaired, hairless, older, and frail pets — Some pets won’t wear clothing no matter how chilly they are. But if your pet tolerates it well, a sweater can help keep your dog or cat warm, especially when you take her outdoors. But keep in mind that pets lose most of their body heat through the pads of their feet, their ears and their respiratory tract, so there’s a limit to how much warmth a sweater or jacket will provide.

Signs your pet is uncomfortably cold include whining, shivering, appearing anxious, slowing down or stopping, and looking for a warm place to burrow.

Take extra care with senior, arthritic or feeble pets — Cold weather can be especially hard on senior pets and those with degenerative joint disease or another chronic, debilitating condition.

Talk with your integrative veterinarian about physical therapy and other safe, natural methods for improving your pet’s comfort and mobility during cold weather. And make sure your pet has a thick, soft, non-toxic (organic) bed in a warm room for naps and at bedtime.

Take them for a wellness exam — I recommend twice-yearly exams for all pets, and especially seniors, so making one of those visits in the fall or early winter is a good way to ensure your dog or cat is healthy before the cold weather arrives. Your integrative veterinarian will measure muscle mass, joint range of motion, check vital organ function and make a wellness plan for the upcoming cold months.
Make sure ID tags are current and keep pets leashed outdoors — More dogs go missing in the winter months than any other time of year. It’s very easy for your pet to lose his scent and get lost when snow or ice is on the ground, and especially during snowstorms.

Snow accumulation can make it impossible for him to know if he’s in his front yard or standing out on a street or highway. Light-colored dogs with snow on their fur can quickly blend into the background, making them nearly impossible to spot.

Wipe them down after a trip outdoors — Pets who go outside during the winter months can pick up rock salt, ice, antifreeze, and other toxic chemicals on their footpads.

To keep your pets’ paws from becoming chapped and raw, and to prevent ingestion of toxins, thoroughly wipe off their feet, legs, and underside after they’ve been outside in the snow and ice. Also regularly check paws for any signs of injury or bleeding from walking on frozen or snow-packed surfaces.

Be careful near water — If you live near a pond, lake or other inland water source that tends to freeze over during cold weather, take care when letting your pet off the leash. Animals can easily fall through the ice, and it’s very difficult for them to escape on their own, or for humans to rescue them.
Stay alert for outdoor cats — Hopefully you keep your cat inside, but your neighbors may not, or there could be strays or feral cats in the area. Kitties left out in cold temps will sometimes crawl up under the hoods of cars or into the wheel wells. Starting or moving the vehicle can hurt or even kill a cat taking shelter inside a car.

During winter months, it’s a good idea to bang loudly on your car hood before starting the engine as a warning to a cat that might be in or around your vehicle.

Keep them safe from potentially dangerous heat sources — If you use a fireplace or space heater, expect your pet to lie near it for warmth. Keep a close watch to ensure no part of her body comes in contact with flames, heating coils or other hot surfaces. She can easily burn herself or knock a heating unit over and put everyone in the house in danger.
Have your furnace inspected and change your air filter — It’s a good idea to have your heating unit checked for carbon monoxide leaks before winter sets in. Carbon monoxide is odorless and invisible, but it can cause serious health problems in both people and pets. Since your dog or cat very likely spends much more time at home than you do during the winter months, she’s more vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Changing your whole house air filter twice a year is a great idea. Most people are shocked to learn how much dust, dirt, allergens, pollen and mold can accumulate in filters over the summer.

Dust mites thrive during the winter months, making your home a ripe environment for year-round misery, in terms of itchy paws and bellies. Providing pets with filtered air is one way to help reduce the allergen load in your house during winter.

Veterinary euthanasia: the last act of love

Thursday, January 16th, 2020

from dvm360.com   2019-08-20

Mike Paul, DVM

When it comes to ending a pets life, many people wonder, How do vets do it? I consider ending an animals suffering to be one of the greatest responsibilities entrusted to the veterinary profession and one of the gifts many veterinarians take for granted.

When a pet’s quality of life declines so much that the owner is faced with having to make the decision to actively end that pet’s life, it can seem impossibly overwhelming. Euthanasia is a difficult discussion topic for both pet owners and pet care providers. The concept of proactively ending a pet’s life, regardless of the reason, brings up complex emotions and challenging ethical issues, especially as euthanasia for people is increasingly explored and legalized. After all, where is the line to be drawn when we discuss end-of-life issues? While animal euthanasia is almost universally accepted as humane and necessary when quality of life fades, very similar scenarios are commonly faced and debated in human health care.

Physician-assisted death, or “aid in dying,” is currently legal in a number of countries, including Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Colombia, Switzerland, and parts of Australia and the United States (California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Montana, Maine [bill signed by the governor June 12, 2019], New Jersey [as of Aug. 1, 2019], Oregon, Vermont, and Washington). There is little question that as medical science advances and people are living longer, the progress of disease will change. People will become more involved in decisions about their own right to die, and a greater number of states, countries and societies will create a space for physician-facilitated death owing to physical and emotional pain as well as dignity and quality-of-life issues.

I cannot imagine the difficulty of making this ultimate decision for myself, nor can I imagine actively participating in the death of another human being even if they choose to end their life. And yet, all practicing veterinarians have participated in ending the suffering of animal life.

Of all my professional interactions with patients, caregivers and family members, by far the most emotional have revolved around issues of euthanasia. I have always viewed euthanasia as one of the greatest responsibilities entrusted to our profession and at the same time one of the gifts many veterinarians take for granted. Clearly, we all value the lives and welfare of our patients, but at times our abilities have been exhausted and we must consider the remaining options. After all, our professional oath dictates that our ultimate goal is to relieve suffering for those under our care.

An old friend recently said goodbye to his very special dog. Now, I know all pets are special to their caregivers, but even I cried at this pet’s passing despite not having seen the dog in years. As his pet parent (not a term I use often or take lightly) and I shared a tear, he raised the question, “How do you vets do it?”

It never gets easier, I started to explain, and as I spoke I recalled countless euthanasias I had performed over the course of my career. My own philosophy about ending a patient’s life is this: “Not a day too soon but not a moment too delayed.” The growing movement in the direction of pet hospice is based on that perspective. Saying goodbye to a beloved pet carries so many emotions and psychological steps that we sometimes gloss over them … until it is our pet and we experience it up close and personal.

For veterinarians, humane euthanasia is a way of ending pointless suffering in animals when all else has failed. It is often a difficult therapeutic option in the best interest of the animal and the family. In fact, we are obligated to consider euthanasia as an option to relieve suffering. It seems there is always another thing that can be done in an effort to forestall pain and death, but to what end? Sometimes it seems rather than extending life we wind up prolonging the death process.

Discussing death: an ongoing conversation

Click here for the dvm360 end-of-life toolkit, which includes articles, tips, handouts, videos and other tools designed to help veterinary professionals have thoughtful, meaningful end-of-life discussions with pet owners.

While animals are not thought to be self-aware or able to reflect on their own condition, and they cannot balance their suffering against time or pleasure or memories of better days, they are certainly sentient creatures capable of feeling physical and psychological pain. Yet, they are not in a position to make decisions about their own medical care. That responsibility falls on their owners.

For many pet owners, however, even the thought of losing a beloved pet can be too much to process. When a pet’s quality of life declines so much that the owner is faced with having to make the decision to actively end that pet’s life, it can seem impossibly overwhelming. How many times has an owner told me that they just wanted their pet to “die peacefully in its sleep”? Yet, very few animals die quietly in their sleep and even those pets too often have suffered needlessly until their body simply could not go on. A peaceful death is often only possible with the intervention of euthanasia.

As veterinarians, we are expected to be more objective and should work with owners to decide when euthanasia might be the kindest option, providing permission and support when the time arrives. Euthanasia is sometimes the last arrow in our quiver … the last act of love we can give.

Dr. Mike Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of Magpie Veterinary Consulting. He is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.

Debunking the “Alpha Dog” Theory

Monday, January 13th, 2020

Exerting “dominance” over your dog is the wrong way to build a good relationship.

The alpha myth is everywhere. Google “alpha dog” on the Internet and you get more than 85 million hits. Really. While not all the sites are about dominating your dog, there are literally millions of resources out there – websites, books, blogs, television shows, veterinarians, trainers and behavior professionals – instructing you to use force and intimidation to overpower your dog into submission. They say that you, the human, must be the alpha. They’re all wrong. Every single one of them.

The erroneous approach to canine social behavior known as dominance theory (two million-plus Google hits) is based on a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel, in which the scientist concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf.

The Origin’s of the “Alpha” Dog Theory

Schenkel’s observations of captive wolf behavior were erroneously extrapolated to wild wolf behavior, and then to domestic dogs. It was postulated that wolves were in constant competition for higher rank in the hierarchy, and only the aggressive actions of the alpha male and female held the contenders in check. Other behaviorists following Schenkel’s lead also studied captive wolves and confirmed his findings: groups of unrelated wolves brought together in artificial captive environments do, indeed, engage in often-violent and bloody social struggles.

The problem is, that’s not normal wolf behavior. As David Mech stated in the introduction to his study of wild wolves (Mech, 2000), “Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots (Schenkel 1947; Rabb et al. 1967; Fox 1971a; Zimen 1975, 1982; Lockwood 1979; van Hooff et al. 1987) is particularly misleading.”

What we know now, thanks to Mech and others, is that in the wild, a wolf pack is a family, consisting of a mated pair and their offspring of the past one to three years. Occasionally two or three families may group together. As the offspring mature they disperse from the pack; the only long-term members of the group are the breeding pair. By contrast, in captivity unrelated wolves are forced to live together for many years, creating tension between mature adults that doesn’t happen in a natural, wild pack.

Dominance-Based Training is Disrespectful to Your Dog

But that’s all about wolves anyway, not dogs. How did it happen that dog owners and trainers started thinking all that information (and misinformation) about wolf behavior had anything to do with dogs and dog behavior? The logic went something like, “Dogs are descended from wolves. Wolves live in hierarchical packs in which the aggressive alpha male rules over everyone else. Therefore, humans need to dominate their pet dogs to get them to behave.”

Perhaps the most popular advocate of this inaccurate concept, Cesar Millan, is only the latest in a long line of dominance-based trainers who advocate forceful techniques such as the alpha roll. Much of this style of training has roots in the military – which explains the emphasis on punishment.

As far back as 1906, Colonel Konrad Most was using heavy-handed techniques to train dogs in the German army, then police and service dogs. He was joined by William Koehler after the end of World War II.

Koehler also initially trained dogs for the military prior to his civilian dog-training career, and his writings advocated techniques that included hanging and helicoptering a dog into submission (into unconsciousness, if necessary). For example, to stop a dog from digging, Koehler suggested filling the hole with water and submerging the dog’s head in the water-filed hole until he was nearly drowned.

Fast-forward several years to 1978 and the emergence of the Monks of New Skete as the new model for dog training, asserting a philosophy that “understanding is the key to communication, compassion, and communion” with your dog. Sounds great, yes? The Monks were considered cutting edge at the time – but contrary to their benevolent image, they were in fact responsible for the widespread popularization of the “Alpha-Wolf Roll-Over” (now shortened to the alpha roll). Reviewing the early observations of captive wolves, the Monks concluded that the alpha roll is a useful tool for demonstrating one’s authority over a dog. Unfortunately, this is  a complete and utter misinterpretation of the submissive roll-over that is voluntarily offered by less assertive dogs, not forcibly commanded by stronger ones.

The Monks also advocated the frequent use of other physical punishments such as the scruff shake (grab both sides of the dog’s face and shake, lifting the dog off the ground) and cuffing under the dog’s chin with an open hand several times, hard enough to cause the dog to yelp.

While professing that “training dogs is about building a relationship that is based on respect and love and understanding,” even their most recent book, Divine Canine: The Monks’ Way to a Happy, Obedient Dog (2007), is still heavy on outdated, erroneous dominance theory. Immediately following their suggestion that “a kindly, gentle look tells the dog she is loved and accepted,” they say “But it is just as vital to communicate a stern reaction to bad behavior. A piercing, sustained stare into a dog’s eyes tells her who’s in charge; it establishes the proper hierarchy of dominance between person and pet.” (It’s also a great way to unwittingly elicit a strong aggressive response if you choose the wrong dog as the subject for your piercing, sustained stare.)

Despite the strong emergence of positive reinforcement-based training in the last 20 years, the Monks don’t seem to have grasped that the “respect” part needs to go both ways for a truly compassionate communion with your dog. Perhaps one of these days . . .

The Birth of Positive-Reinforcement Training

Just when it seemed that dog training had completely stagnated in turn-of-the-century military-style dominance-theory training, marine mammal trainer Karen Pryor wrote her seminal book, Don’t Shoot the Dog. Published in 1985, this small, unassuming volume was intended as a self-help book for human behavior. The author never dreamed that her modest book, paired with a small plastic box that made a clicking sound, would launch a massive paradigm shift in the world of dog training and behavior. But it did.

police dog training

Forward progress was slow until 1993, when veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Dunbar’s vision of a forum for trainer education and networking has developed into an organization that now boasts nearly 6,000 members worldwide. While membership in the APDT is not restricted to positive reinforcement-based trainers, included in its guiding principles is this statement:

“We promote the use of reward-based training methods, thereby minimizing the use of aversive techniques.”

The establishment of this forum facilitated the rapid spread of information in the dog training world, enhanced by the creation of an online discussion list where members could compare notes and offer support for a scientific and dog-friendly approach to training.

Things were starting to look quite rosy for our dogs. The positive market literally mushroomed with books and videos from dozens of quality training and behavior professionals, including Jean Donaldson, Dr. Patricia McConnell, Dr. Karen Overall, Suzanne Hetts, and others. With advances in positive training and an increasingly educated dog training profession embracing the science of behavior and learning and passing good information on to their clients, pain-causing, abusive methods such as the alpha roll, scruff shake, hanging, drowning, and cuffing appeared to be headed the way of the passenger pigeon.

A Step-Backward for Positive-Reinforcement Training Techniques

Then, in the fall of 2004, the National Geographic Channel launched its soon-to-be wildly popular show, The Dog Whisperer. Dominance theory was back in vogue, with a vengeance. Today, everything from housetraining mistakes to jumping up to counter surfing to all forms of aggression is likely to be attributed to “dominance” by followers of the alpha-resurgence.

“But,” some will argue, “look at all the dogs who have been successfully trained throughout the past century using the dominance model. Those trainers can’t be all wrong.”

In fact, harsh force-based methods (in technical parlance, “positive punishment”) are a piece of operant conditioning, and as the decades have proven, those methods can work. They are especially good at shutting down behaviors – convincing a dog that it’s not safe to do anything unless instructed to do something. And yes, that works with some dogs. With others, not so much.

My own personal, unscientific theory is that dog personalities lie on a continuum from very soft to very tough. Harsh, old-fashioned dominance-theory methods can effectively suppress behaviors without obvious fallout (although there is always behavioral fallout) with dogs nearest the center of the personality continuum – those who are resilient enough to withstand the punishment, but not so tough and assertive that they fight back. Under dominance theory, when a dog fights back, you must fight back harder until he submits, in order to assert yourself as the pack leader, or alpha.

Problem is, sometimes they don’t submit, and the level of violence escalates. Or they submit for the moment, but may erupt aggressively again the next time a human does something violent and inappropriate to them. Under dominance-theory training, those dogs are often deemed incorrigible, not suitable for the work they’re being trained for nor safe as a family companion, and sentenced to death. Had they never been treated inappropriately, many might have been perfectly fine.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a very “soft” dog can be easily psychologically damaged by one enthusiastic inappropriate assertion of rank by a heavy-handed dominance trainer. This dog quickly shuts down – fearful and mistrusting of the humans in his world who are unpredictably and unfairly violent.

Most crossover trainers (those who used to train with old-fashioned methods and now are proud to promote positive reinforcement-based training) will tell you they successfully trained lots of dogs the old way. They loved their dogs and their dogs loved them.

I’m a crossover trainer and I know that’s true. I also would dearly love to be able to go back and redo all of that training, to be able to have an even better relationship with those dogs, to give them a less stressful life – one filled with even more joy than the one we shared together.

We Aren’t Dogs, and Our Dogs Know It

Finally, the very presumption that our dogs would even consider we humans to be members of their canine pack is simply ludicrous. They know how impossibly inept we are, for the most part, at reading and understanding the subtleties of canine body language. We are equally inept, if not even more so, at trying to mimic those subtleties. Any attempts on our part to somehow insert ourselves into their social structure and communicate meaningfully with them in this manner are simply doomed to failure. It’s about time we gave up trying to be dogs in a dog pack and accepted that we are humans co-existing with another species – and that we’re most successful doing so when we co-exist peacefully.

The fact is, successful social groups work because of voluntary deference, not because of aggressively enforced dominance. The whole point of social body language rituals is to avoid conflict and confrontation, not to cause it. Watch any group of dogs interacting. Time and time again you’ll see dogs deferring to each other. It’s not even always the same dog deferring:

Dog B: Hey, I’d really like to go first. Dog A: “By all means, be my guest.” Dog B passes down the narrow hallway.

Dog A: “I’d really like to have that bone.” Dog B: “Oh sure – I didn’t feel like chewing right now anyway.” Dog A gets the bone.

Social hierarchies do exist in groups of domesticated dogs and in many other species, including humans, and hierarchy can be fluid. As described above, one dog may be more assertive in one encounter, and more deferent in the next, depending on what’s at stake, and how strongly each dog feels about the outcome. There are a myriad of subtleties about how those hierarchies work, and how the members of a social group communicate – in any species.

Today, educated trainers are aware that canine-human interactions are not driven by social rank, but rather by reinforcement. Behaviors that are reinforced repeat and strengthen. If your dog repeats an inappropriate behavior such as counter surfing or getting on the sofa, it’s not because he’s trying to take over the world; it’s just because he’s been reinforced by finding food on the counter, or by being comfortable on the sofa. He’s a scavenger and an opportunist, and the goods are there for the taking. Figure out how to prevent him from being reinforced for the behaviors you don’t want, and reinforce him liberally for the ones you do, and you’re well on your way to having the relationship of mutual love, respect, communication, and communion that we all want to have with our dogs.

Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. Author of numerous books on positive dog training, she lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center, where she offers dog training classes and courses for trainers.

Breaking: Taurine might not be behind heart disease from kibble

Monday, December 30th, 2019

From Dogs Naturally Magazine

By:  –

They alerted pet owners about the potential for heart disease in dogs on certain diets … diets that may be deficient in taurine.

Everyone panicked … but was this panic warranted?

The Tale Of Taurine

Taurine is an amino acid found mainly in meat. Unlike other amino acids, which are used mainly to build proteins, taurine is a loner. It has many special functions, including:

  • It’s a component of bile, which breaks down dietary fat.
  • It’s vital for the proper function of muscles (especially the heart), eyes, brain, and the immune system.
  • It has beneficial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Dogs manufacture their own taurine from the sulfur-containing amino acids methionine and cysteine.  But, with advancing age, taurine production decreases.

The first inkling about taurine’s importance came in the 1980s. Researchers at UC Davis discovered that taurine deficiency was impacting cats. Thousands of cats were going blind. Some were even dying from a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

This happened because pet food companies were making ingredient substitutions. They substituted more and more plant proteins, such as soybeans or corn gluten meal, in place of real meat.

The trouble is … soybeans and corn are poor sources of sulfur-containing amino acids. They also contain zero taurine.

Unlike dogs, cats (and ferrets) must consume taurine in the diet and cannot produce their own.

So the manufacturers started supplementing all cat foods with taurine. The epidemic then faded away (although DCM can still occur, unrelated to diet). Pet food makers saw no reason to add taurine to dog foods, so they chose not to incur the added expense.

However, DCM is common in dogs, especially large breeds. And there is such a thing as taurine-deficiency DCM in dogs; it was discovered in the 1990s.

Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, Newfoundlands … and a handful of other breeds … appear to be genetically predisposed to DCM. It’s also recognized that big dogs produce taurine more slowly than small dogs. This increases their risk of DCM.

[Related: NEWS: FDA Reports Some Dog Foods May Cause Heart Disease]

What The Research Has To Say

Recent research suggests that diet is a factor in less than 20 to 30 percent of dogs with DCM. Some (but not all) of these dogs will improve with taurine supplementation. And that raises even more questions about it!

For one thing, taurine may not even be the real culprit. Taurine production relies on adequate methionine and cysteine in the diet. So the problem may be a deficiency of those amino acids, rather than a lack of taurine itself.

The microbiome may also play a major role in taurine deficiency. This turned out to be the primary factor in cats.  The taurine from bile is reabsorbed in the colon … but bacteria can “steal” taurine and prevent this crucial recycling.

Processing may also play a significant role in dogs as well as cats. This has not, to date, been considered or investigated.

Grain-Free And “Boutique” Foods

The FDA reported a link between DCM and “grain-free” dog foods with large amounts of:

  • Potatoes
  • Legumes
  • Exotic proteins

One expert called these “BEG” (Boutique, Exotic and Grain-Free) diets.

The increase in reported taurine-DCM cases caught the FDA’s attention. Not because it was a new concern … but because the dogs weren’t breeds previously known to develop taurine-deficiency DCM. 

These included:

  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Whippets
  • Miniature Schnauzers
  • Shih Tzu
  • A Bulldog and an unspecified number of mixed-breed dogs (and 7 cats).

The FDA said, “potatoes or multiple legumes such as peas, lentils, other pulses (seeds of legumes), and their protein, starch, and fiber,” were the main ingredients of the food in several cases of DCM reported to the agency.

In practical terms, this means that a pet food containing related ingredients … such as “peas, potatoes, pea starch, pea protein, potato protein” could be problematic. This is a common label trick known as “splitting.”

Listing ingredient fractions separately helps a small amount of meat rise to the top … as the ingredients are listed by weight. But, in reality, if they totaled all the plant products, they’d outweigh the meat. This means the food is primarily plant-based.

If the meat is itself is low in taurine, as it is in …

  • Beef
  • Venison
  • Lamb
  • Rabbit
  • Kangaroo

…  that exacerbates the problem in diets with these ingredients.

Interestingly, most vegetarian and vegan dog foods already contain added taurine and carnitine. Evidently, this issue was not hard to anticipate in low- or zero-meat diets.

Manufacturers whose products have been implicated quickly retuned to add supplemental taurine to their foods … but even that may not be enough to correct the problem.

The link between canine DCM and diet is not restricted to exotic meats, potatoes or legumes. Current and past research notes that any of these ingredients may be correlated with DCM:

Animal Products

  • Bison
  • Duck
  • Lamb
  • Kangaroo
  • Salmon
  • Venison

Plant Products

  • Barley
  • Beet pulp*
  • Chickpeas
  • Fava beans
  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Potatoes
  • Rice/rice bran**
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tapioca

* While it was not named by FDA in this situation … beet pulp is known to decrease taurine status in dogs under some conditions. 

** Previous studies found taurine deficiency from eating diets containing rice or rice bran. 

[Related: The Truth About Grain-Free Dog Foods And DCM]

Consider All Factors

It’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. Just because taurine is a common factor in a bunch of dogs with DCM … it does not mean that taurine deficiency is the sole cause.

Taurine may just be an innocent bystander! Moreover, this list is counter-intuitive, because salmon and duck are high in taurine. Therefore, processing, bioavailability or other factors are also playing a role. 

For example, taurine from fish is diminished by heat processing; the loss is about 30 percent.

The FDA claims … food made by small “boutique” manufacturers is more likely to be problematic.

However, in one set of 18 cases, 15 were from foods with “boutique” brand labels … but those brands are owned and produced by some of the world’s biggest pet food manufacturers …

  • Purina
  • Mars
  • Champion

It appears that the size of the pet food company is largely irrelevant. And now the FDA has done irreparable damage to small brands’ reputations … with its premature and inaccurate assessment.

DCM occurs in all kinds of dogs eating all kinds of foods …

  • Foods with a simple ingredient list
  • Food with a very complex ingredient list
  • Homemade diets
  • Commercial raw foods.

And while the FDA listed ingredients that have at some point been associated with DCM in dogs … they seem to only be concerned with potatoes and legumes.

It’s very important to note this: Not all dogs with DCM … and not all dogs with very low blood levels of taurine … respond to taurine supplementation. 

Many dogs with DCM have perfectly normal taurine levels. A few dogs with low taurine levels can develop DCM …  but so can dogs who are eating high-taurine foods.

This implies that taurine itself isn’t the problem (at least in those cases). It could be a lack of methionine, cysteine or any number of completely different factor(s).

One study on taurine in dogs concluded, “there was no clear relationship between low (whole blood taurine) and presence of DCM.”

The Bottom Line

Grain-free dog foods have been safely fed to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dogs for many years. The relationship to DCM is far from clear.

The FDA is not recommending a diet change for any dog, as their investigation is ongoing.

The link between diet and DCM is much more complicated than blaming a few ingredients. It’s clear that we need to consider genetics and diet ingredients combined.

Or perhaps the food’s overall content of …

  • Methionine
  • Cysteine
  • L-carnitine
  • Taurine

… And other factors like processing are at the root of DCM in these cases.

But at this point, no one – the FDA or anyone else … has any idea which factors are actually problematic. Nor do they know in what amounts or combinations.

Unfortunately, many veterinarians are now recommending grain-based foods … even though there haven’t been all that many cases.

And the chance of a dog developing taurine-related DCM  is extremely small.

Grain-based foods have their own (significant) set of problems including:

  • Pesticide residues
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • Toxic byproducts of processing
  • Mycotoxins from mold

They also tend to use less expensive, poorer quality animal proteins. You’ll see ingredients like poultry by-products, meat meal and bone meal.

So, what should you do?

Ideally, feed your dog a fresh diet that’s high in animal protein. But at the very least, make sure the food you’re feeding has more meat proteins than plant substitutes.

Don’t forget, you can call the manufacturer and ask questions if you’re uncertain! 

Symptoms Of DCM In Dogs

Symptoms of DCM in dogs include:

  • Tiring easily
  • Excessive panting
  • Coughing
  • Weakness
  • Ataxia (being unsteady on the feet)

If you have any concerns about your dog or the food you’re feeding, talk with your vet about testing. Your veterinarian can submit blood and plasma samples to UC Davis for analysis.

However, as expected, their laboratory has been overwhelmed since the FDA’s announcement. So it could take weeks to get your dog’s results.

Keep Yourself Up To Date

The best place for up-to-date information on brands can be found on Facebook, in the Taurine DCM group.

While there is a great deal of speculation and misinformation in the posted comments … you’ll find a few helpful items. They have a current chart of cases, including breeds, as well as specific brand names. You’ll find these in their Files Section. 

It’s way too early to hit the panic button, but it’s certainly good to be aware of this ongoing issue.

The Runaway Concept of an Emotional Support Animal

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019

From:  https://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2019/12/15/emotional-support-animal-certification.aspx

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker               December 15, 2019

STORY AT-A-GLANCE

  • Emotional support animals (ESAs) seem to be everywhere these days, but the issue is not without controversy
  • Researchers at the University of New Mexico have developed a standard assessment for therapists asked to provide patients with ESA certificates
  • The proposal answers the need for ethical guidelines around ESAs
  • If the proposal is adopted as an industry standard, it will become more difficult for individuals to receive ESA certifications, but will benefit society as a whole from the standpoint of safety

By now almost everyone is familiar with the concept of an emotional support animal (ESA), and chances are, many of you have already encountered an ESA in a formerly “animal-free zone.” Or perhaps you or someone in your family or circle of friends has a dog, cat, bird, or other animal companion who serves as an ESA.

How ESAs Differ From Service Animals

Emotional support animals, according to the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), can be any species of animal, who must fulfill a disability-related need and whose use is supported by a physician, psychiatrist or mental health professional.

ESAs don’t qualify as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Service animals are highly trained and can receive certifications as psychiatric service dogs to help people who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia and other mental conditions.

Emotional support animals, on the other hand, don’t require specific training to provide assistance to someone with a psychological disability. However, they may be permitted in housing facilities that would otherwise prohibit animals, and the ACAA allows some ESAs to travel on airlines at no extra cost, often with supportive documentation required.

As you might expect, there’s growing controversy surrounding the appearance of ESAs in ever-increasing numbers in locations that have traditionally been off-limits to animals. Sadly, the backlash isn’t surprising given that more than a few people have taken advantage of the special access granted to ESAs, falsely claiming their pet is necessary for emotional support.

Researchers Propose a Standard Assessment to Certify ESAs

Recently, researchers at the University of New Mexico published an article in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, outlining the ethical challenges therapists face when asked to certify emotional support animals for their patients, and offering possible solutions to better serve both people who feel they need ESAs and those who must comply with the animals, such as landlords and airlines.1

The research team developed and is proposing a four-prong standard assessment for therapists when asked by patients to provide an ESA certificate:

  1. Understanding, recognizing and applying the laws regulating ESAs.
  2. A thorough valid assessment of the individual requesting an ESA certification.
  3. An assessment of the animal in question to ensure it actually performs the valid functions of an ESA.
  4. An assessment of the interaction between the animal and the individual to determine whether the animal’s presence has a demonstrably beneficial effect on that individual.

Assessment Will Address Whether the ESA Is Able to Do What It’s Being Asked to Do

The proposed assessment involves not just the patient, but the animal as well.

“Somebody has to certify that the animal is able to do what you’re asking it to do,” says lead article author Jeffrey Younggren, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “And there are avenues by which animals can be evaluated regarding their capacity for these kinds of experiences.”2

There’s no shortage of horror stories of encounters with emotional support animals, especially during air travel, and Younggren and his colleagues believe that implementing standardized guidelines and practices will reduce the number of incidents.

“Our research has nothing to do with service animals,” Younggren clarifies. “Seeing eye dogs and therapy dogs are animals that help individuals manage their disabilities in certain situations — but that’s not what an ESA is. An ESA is an example of a well-intended idea that has metastasized and developed into a world of nonsense.”

Proposal Answers the Need for Ethical Guidelines Around ESAs

Paper co-author Cassandra Boness, a University of Missouri Ph.D. candidate, says the proposed assessment will better align ESA certifications with professional and legal practices, while also providing guidelines for mental health therapists.

“One of our biggest goals is to disseminate this information in order to better educate mental health providers, as well as policy writers, about the need for ethical guidelines around ESAs,” Boness said.3

Importantly, mental health practitioners who aren’t knowledgeable about the law may not realize that when they write an ESA certification letter for a patient, legally it constitutes a disability determination that becomes part of the patient’s permanent medical record. Per the UNM Newsroom publication:

“Currently, in order to receive waivers for housing or travel purposes where animals are banned, the law requires patients must have a mental or emotional condition diagnosable by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

If patients are given certifications for an ESA, it means they, and the therapist signing the certification, are declaring the patient to be psychologically disabled with significant impairment in functioning.”4

The proposed assessment will require ESA certifiers to perform a comprehensive evaluation of the person requesting the certification to determine if they have a disability under the DSM-5, according to Younggren.

“That disability has to substantially interfere with the patient’s ability to function, which is what the ADA requires,” he explains. “And the presence of the animal has to ameliorate the condition, which means you have to see the person with the animal.”

If the proposal is adopted as an industry standard, it will become more difficult for individuals to receive ESA certifications, but will benefit society as a whole from a safety perspective.

Moving Forward

The researchers are hopeful their work will spur more research on the impact of emotional support animals on patients in order to build a larger body of scientific evidence.

The important takeaway here is that no one is arguing that pets provide both physical and mental health benefits to humans — those facts are well-estab­lished and backed up with an ever-growing library of scientific studies.

The human-animal bond is real and describes the powerful, positive interaction that exists between people and animals. It’s not just about companionship — it’s about a deep connection that enhances the quality of life of both humans and animals.

The issue is that in a civilized society, it’s necessary to develop and enforce guidelines and standards that benefit the many rather than the few. It’s also important to evaluate current trends, in this case the growing use of ESAs, for potential short and long-term consequences to the animals and humans involved in these pairings, as well as society as a whole.

The Invisible Emotional Burden of Caring for a Sick Pet

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019
from: https://www.thecut.com/2017/10/the-invisible-emotional-burden-of-caring-for-a-sick-pet.html
Earlier this year, kindergarten teacher Jessica Wiles, 35, found herself faced with a choice: her boyfriend or her dog, Mia. The problem had been brewing for some time: Two years into Wiles’s relationship, Mia was diagnosed with Cushing syndrome, an endocrine disorder that can cause lethargy, weakness, and frequent infections. Wiles began staying home more often to take care of her; as time wore on, she says, her boyfriend became frustrated, accusing her of neglecting him to be with her dog. This past June, he reached a breaking point: “He actually ended the relationship because he said the dog took precedence over him,” Wiles says. “He didn’t understand that it’s not just a piece of property. They are living, breathing things.”

When Wiles told other people about her situation, she says, she was often met with bafflement and scorn rather than sympathy, and questions about why she didn’t just put Mia down. But Cushing, while chronic, is manageable. “I have a problem deciding to kill my dog just because of health issues. I don’t understand the mind-set of, ‘She’s got a health problem, we’re going to put her down,’” Wiles says. “If the dog was suffering, it would be one thing, but she is still interested in life.”

There’s no question, though, that caring for her has made Wiles’s own life more difficult — emotionally, socially, financially. It’s well known that people caring for ill relatives can suffer from caregiver burden, negatively impacting the health and well-being of the caregiver, but the toll of taking care of a sick pet is often minimized or overlooked. According to a new study, that’s a mistake.

“I wouldn’t equate pet caregiving with human, and certainly don’t want to minimize what family caregivers go through,” said lead author Mary Beth Spitznagel, a clinical neuropsychologist at Kent State University, but “we are seeing similar patterns in terms of a greater level of burden, higher level of stress, depressive symptoms, and a lower quality of life.”

Spitznagel, who had previously worked with caregivers of relatives with dementia, says she got the idea for the study while caring for her dog Allo, who had recently been diagnosed with bladder cancer. “It was a daily challenge trying to fix the problems that sprang up.
And that was kind of when I realized the similarity,” she says. “When we see a burdened caregiver, oftentimes the burden is kind of the constant problem solving, because new problems are always emerging when you are caring for someone who is sick.”

Compared to participants with healthy pets, study subjects caring for chronic or terminally ill animals scored higher on scales of depression, anxiety and lower on well-being, and a psychometric test called the Zarit Burden Interview used to measure burden in human caregivers (the study authors adapted the test by replacing the word “relative” with “pet”). In itself, the finding that people with sick pets feel more of a burden isn’t surprising — but the intensity of that burden was. “It’s meeting this threshold for what we would consider to be concerning if someone were in a human caregiving relationship,” Spitznagel says.

In humans, a score of 20 or higher on the Zarit — which contains items related to feeling strained about your pet, having your social life suffer, and financial stress — indicates “significant burden.” Caregivers of sick pets scored 25.42 on average, compared to 13.96 for owners of healthy pets.

A few caveats: Participants in the current study were almost exclusively educated, wealthy, white women, with an average age of 48. The skewed sampling is likely a limitation — but “at the same time, this might be exactly who the population is,” Spitznagel says. After all, caregiving in humans typically falls to women, and veterinary care, which typically comes out of pocket, is unaffordable to many. Beyond replicating the results in a more diverse group, Spitznahel adds, the next step in her research would be to investigate the “ramifications of burden and the impact on the pet.”

Pet owners go into more detail, describing serious negative impacts to their finances, mental and physical health, social and employment status, and relationships. Wiles, who works two side jobs to help pay for vet treatments, says she has become physically ill from the stress of caring for Mia, compounded by the fact that she now helps her mother care for her grandmother as well.

Emotionally, caring for Mia and caring for her grandmother didn’t feel very different, Wiles says. “The biggest difference is with my grandma there was someone to relieve me,” Wiles said. “Other family members would come and help, but when it’s a dog people aren’t willing to do that.”

“I felt really trapped, ” said Petra Lee, 40, who at one point last year was caring for blind dog, a dog with allergies, an epileptic dog, and a cat with cancer. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep. There was a point where I was really stressed out just having to function with all this and I was having to take a lot of time off of work. I had a hard time making food for myself.” Lee’s caregiving also caused fights with her ex-girlfriend, she says, although overall her ex was very helpful.

But “the biggest thing for me,” Lee says, “is financial.” She felt a lot of guilt last year when she had to balance caring for her cat against her other animals, and also encountered a lot of people who question her choices. “I think I have a lot of privilege, I can afford it,” Lee explains. “I don’t make a lot of money, but I have pretty good salary. And I don’t have children and my dogs are my life.”

“We have our good days, our bad days, and our horrible days,” says Ana Sakuta, 37, whose dog, Roxy, became paralyzed a few years ago. Surgery fixed the problem — Roxy recovered and things went back to normal for a while. But soon, new issues emerged: Roxy stopped eating, became lethargic, and wouldn’t take her medicine.

At that point, Sakuta, who has been the main caregiver for the dogs, brought up euthanasia to her husband, which caused a fight — an added stressor she didn’t need. “It’s really rough. I’m crying, calling the vet all the time,” Sakuta says. “You try to talk to somebody about it and they don’t understand.” Sakuta has asked others in her family for help looking after Roxy, she says, but people tell her they don’t feel comfortable watching the dog due to the amount of work involved.

Although Spitznagel’s is the first study to formally document pet caregiver burden, veterinary social workers have long been aware of the issue. Susan Cohen, a support group facilitator at the ASPCA, estimates she has counseled thousands of pet owners over the years.
The most common issues she hears are “constant vigilance, isolation, and guilt,” she says, and the never-ending problem solving also take a toll: “They’re trying to decide all the time whether the pet is getting worse or getting better, and they often don’t have anyone to talk to about it,” she explains.

“I am so pleased that that study was done,” Cohen adds, noting that she’s tried to get vets to recognize caregiver burden and set up systems to address it. A few large veterinary practices have counselors on staff and offer support groups, but the practice isn’t widespread, and she often gets pushback about the lack of research.

In the meantime, Cohen works with pet owners to ease the decision-making load as much as possible, helping them establish boundaries and a treatment plan early on. Most people say that they will care for their pet so long as they have the means. “I want to figure out what their limits are,” Cohen says, which often involves naming a dollar amount or cap. Whether it’s money or quality of life, it’s helpful for pet owners to be able to answer one simple, and painful, question: “What are you trading it for?”

The New No-Grain Ingredient Coming to Your Pet Food Aisle

Monday, November 18th, 2019

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance

  • Despite growing concerns about the connection between grain-free formulas containing pulse crops and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs, the processed pet food industry continues to talk up the use of fava beans in grain-free pet food
  • In addition to the DCM connection, there are many other reasons pulse crops such as fava beans don’t belong in dog and cat food, e.g., they contain substances pets’ bodies can’t digest, that also interfere with mineral absorption

Despite the much-publicized suspected link between grain-free diets high in legumes and diet-related dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs, the processed pet food industry remains very committed to searching out biologically inappropriate pulse crops for potential use in dog and cat food.

A recent favorite is fava beans (also called faba and broad beans), which “may be the next new grain-free ingredient in the pet food aisle,” according to a recent article in a pet food industry publication.1 Last year the same publication promoted a 2017 study that suggests fava beans are an “effective ingredient for use in a commercial dog diet.”2

“It appears fava beans were well tolerated at all levels tested and only influenced digestibility at higher levels,” reported study co-author Greg Aldrich, PhD. “The dehulled fava beans in our study processed well in extrusion. They would be a solid contributor as an ingredient choice in modern pet foods.”3

This study is typical of pet food industry scientific research designed to see how much of a biologically inappropriate ingredient pets can ingest before it interferes with their digestion in an immediately measurable way. The dogs in the study didn’t develop noticeable digestive issues until they were subjected to higher levels of fava beans.

This is a considered a win by the industry, because they now have yet another inexpensive, plentiful, plant-based (i.e., biologically inappropriate) ingredient they can use to inflate the protein percentage in their formulas, and also potentially use to replace meat protein in vegetarian or vegan pet foods.

Why Pulse Crops Don’t Belong in Pet Food

Pulse crops, also called pulses or legumes, are plants with a pod. “Pulse” is the term used to identify the edible seeds of legumes, and is derived from the Latin word puls, meaning thick soup. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)4 recognizes 11 primary pulses:5

Dry beans (kidney, lima, azuki, mung, black gram, scarlet runner, ricebean, moth, and tepary) Lentil
Dry broad beans (fava, horse, broad, field) Bambara groundnut
Dry peas (garden, protein) Vetch
Chickpea Lupins
Dry cowpea Minor pulses (lablab, jack, winged, velvet, and yam beans)
Pigeon pea

Because they are high in fiber, folate, iron (when eaten with a source of vitamin C), and complex carbohydrates, and are also low in fat, pulse crops are considered nutritious for humans by some nutritionists, and not by others. Some experts advise keeping legume intake minimal for the same reason I recommend avoiding feeding these foods to pets — the presence of phytates and lectins that are naturally found in legumes.

Phytates are substances that carnivores can’t break down because they lack phytase, the enzyme necessary to process phytic acid. Phytates bind minerals (including zinc, iron, calcium and magnesium), leeching them out of your pet’s body. Lectins are sticky proteins that when consumed in large quantities may contribute to gastrointestinal (GI) disturbances and leaky gut.

Pet food producers and their ingredient suppliers are aware that many pet parents tend to believe foods that are healthy for humans are also healthy for dogs and cats. In fact, they use pet owners’ lack of knowledge about pet food ingredients to create and market biologically inappropriate diets. For example, one of the marketing approaches used to promote pet foods containing bean meal is weight loss.

The nutrient profile in beans may benefit some humans and other omnivores and herbivores, but carnivores thrive on animal — not plant — protein, and they don’t benefit physiologically from starch or high levels of dietary fiber. Cats are true carnivores and dogs are facultative carnivores, not omnivores or herbivores, but that pesky little fact certainly hasn’t diminished the pet food industry’s love affair with ingredients nature didn’t design dogs and cats to eat.

Most Pet Food Research is Conducted for the Benefit of Pet Food Companies, Not Dogs and Cats

Also good news for pet food producers is that fava beans “processed well in extrusion.” Extrusion, as we know, is a manufacturing method that has been used by the pet food industry for decades. About 95% of dry pet diets are produced using the extrusion process.

Batches of raw ingredients are mixed, sheared and heated under high pressure, forced through a spiral shaped screw and then through the die of the extruder machine. Extrudate is the result — a ribbon-like product that is then knife-cut and dried.

The high temperature used in extrusion (nearly 400°F) and the short time frame to process (under 5 minutes) creates continuous chemical and physical alterations to the ingredient mixture. This not only changes the molecular activity of the food, but also potentially contributes to a heavier carcinogenic load and profound levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). So, to review, the pet food industry’s takeaways from the study are:

  • Fava beans hold up well in the extrusion process
  • Fava beans in moderate amounts can be tolerated by dogs
  • Fava beans can be used to boost the protein percentages (misleadingly, in my opinion) in pet food formulas

Honestly, the simple fact that an ingredient such as fava beans must be tested in pets to see how much they can tolerate before they become ill is all the proof anyone should need that they didn’t evolve to eat that ingredient. Therefore, the intent and result of this study is 100% for the benefit of big pet food, and 0% for the benefit of the dogs and cats who will at some point be fed processed diets containing fava beans.

Legumes and Grain-Free Pet Food

As I mentioned earlier, there’s also cause for concern now that a link has been established between grain-free dog food containing legumes and a growing number of cases of the heart disease dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs. Of the DCM cases the FDA reviewed for its report published in June, 91% of the diets were grain-free and 93% contained peas and/or lentils.

It’s important to note that while legumes are being singled out as a potential problematic ingredient, no definitive test results have been released. However, grain-free kibble is often much higher in both whole carbohydrates and purified starches (e.g., pea starch, potato starch and tapioca starch) than grain-based dry dog food.

The higher the starch level in any pet food, the less protein is included (hence my suggestion to avoid both grains and other sources of unnecessary starch in all pet food). You can find my most recent update on the grain-free kibble/DCM issue, including feeding recommendations, here.

Debunking the “Alpha Dog” Theory

Wednesday, November 13th, 2019

From the Whole Dog Journal   By   Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

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Exerting “dominance” over your dog is the wrong way to build a good relationship.

The alpha myth is everywhere. Google “alpha dog” on the Internet and you get more than 85 million hits. Really. While not all the sites are about dominating your dog, there are literally millions of resources out there – websites, books, blogs, television shows, veterinarians, trainers and behavior professionals – instructing you to use force and intimidation to overpower your dog into submission. They say that you, the human, must be the alpha. They’re all wrong. Every single one of them.

The erroneous approach to canine social behavior known as dominance theory (two million-plus Google hits) is based on a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel, in which the scientist concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf.

The Origin’s of the “Alpha” Dog Theory

Schenkel’s observations of captive wolf behavior were erroneously extrapolated to wild wolf behavior, and then to domestic dogs. It was postulated that wolves were in constant competition for higher rank in the hierarchy, and only the aggressive actions of the alpha male and female held the contenders in check. Other behaviorists following Schenkel’s lead also studied captive wolves and confirmed his findings: groups of unrelated wolves brought together in artificial captive environments do, indeed, engage in often-violent and bloody social struggles.

The problem is, that’s not normal wolf behavior. As David Mech stated in the introduction to his study of wild wolves (Mech, 2000), “Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots (Schenkel 1947; Rabb et al. 1967; Fox 1971a; Zimen 1975, 1982; Lockwood 1979; van Hooff et al. 1987) is particularly misleading.”

What we know now, thanks to Mech and others, is that in the wild, a wolf pack is a family, consisting of a mated pair and their offspring of the past one to three years. Occasionally two or three families may group together. As the offspring mature they disperse from the pack; the only long-term members of the group are the breeding pair. By contrast, in captivity unrelated wolves are forced to live together for many years, creating tension between mature adults that doesn’t happen in a natural, wild pack.

Dominance-Based Training is Disrespectful to Your Dog

But that’s all about wolves anyway, not dogs. How did it happen that dog owners and trainers started thinking all that information (and misinformation) about wolf behavior had anything to do with dogs and dog behavior? The logic went something like, “Dogs are descended from wolves. Wolves live in hierarchical packs in which the aggressive alpha male rules over everyone else. Therefore, humans need to dominate their pet dogs to get them to behave.”

Perhaps the most popular advocate of this inaccurate concept, Cesar Millan, is only the latest in a long line of dominance-based trainers who advocate forceful techniques such as the alpha roll. Much of this style of training has roots in the military – which explains the emphasis on punishment.

As far back as 1906, Colonel Konrad Most was using heavy-handed techniques to train dogs in the German army, then police and service dogs. He was joined by William Koehler after the end of World War II.

Koehler also initially trained dogs for the military prior to his civilian dog-training career, and his writings advocated techniques that included hanging and helicoptering a dog into submission (into unconsciousness, if necessary). For example, to stop a dog from digging, Koehler suggested filling the hole with water and submerging the dog’s head in the water-filed hole until he was nearly drowned.

Fast-forward several years to 1978 and the emergence of the Monks of New Skete as the new model for dog training, asserting a philosophy that “understanding is the key to communication, compassion, and communion” with your dog. Sounds great, yes? The Monks were considered cutting edge at the time – but contrary to their benevolent image, they were in fact responsible for the widespread popularization of the “Alpha-Wolf Roll-Over” (now shortened to the alpha roll). Reviewing the early observations of captive wolves, the Monks concluded that the alpha roll is a useful tool for demonstrating one’s authority over a dog. Unfortunately, this is  a complete and utter misinterpretation of the submissive roll-over that is voluntarily offered by less assertive dogs, not forcibly commanded by stronger ones.

The Monks also advocated the frequent use of other physical punishments such as the scruff shake (grab both sides of the dog’s face and shake, lifting the dog off the ground) and cuffing under the dog’s chin with an open hand several times, hard enough to cause the dog to yelp.

While professing that “training dogs is about building a relationship that is based on respect and love and understanding,” even their most recent book, Divine Canine: The Monks’ Way to a Happy, Obedient Dog (2007), is still heavy on outdated, erroneous dominance theory. Immediately following their suggestion that “a kindly, gentle look tells the dog she is loved and accepted,” they say “But it is just as vital to communicate a stern reaction to bad behavior. A piercing, sustained stare into a dog’s eyes tells her who’s in charge; it establishes the proper hierarchy of dominance between person and pet.” (It’s also a great way to unwittingly elicit a strong aggressive response if you choose the wrong dog as the subject for your piercing, sustained stare.)

Despite the strong emergence of positive reinforcement-based training in the last 20 years, the Monks don’t seem to have grasped that the “respect” part needs to go both ways for a truly compassionate communion with your dog. Perhaps one of these days . . .

The Birth of Positive-Reinforcement Training

Just when it seemed that dog training had completely stagnated in turn-of-the-century military-style dominance-theory training, marine mammal trainer Karen Pryor wrote her seminal book, Don’t Shoot the Dog. Published in 1985, this small, unassuming volume was intended as a self-help book for human behavior. The author never dreamed that her modest book, paired with a small plastic box that made a clicking sound, would launch a massive paradigm shift in the world of dog training and behavior. But it did.

Forward progress was slow until 1993, when veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Dunbar’s vision of a forum for trainer education and networking has developed into an organization that now boasts nearly 6,000 members worldwide. While membership in the APDT is not restricted to positive reinforcement-based trainers, included in its guiding principles is this statement:

“We promote the use of reward-based training methods, thereby minimizing the use of aversive techniques.”

The establishment of this forum facilitated the rapid spread of information in the dog training world, enhanced by the creation of an online discussion list where members could compare notes and offer support for a scientific and dog-friendly approach to training.

Things were starting to look quite rosy for our dogs. The positive market literally mushroomed with books and videos from dozens of quality training and behavior professionals, including Jean Donaldson, Dr. Patricia McConnell, Dr. Karen Overall, Suzanne Hetts, and others. With advances in positive training and an increasingly educated dog training profession embracing the science of behavior and learning and passing good information on to their clients, pain-causing, abusive methods such as the alpha roll, scruff shake, hanging, drowning, and cuffing appeared to be headed the way of the passenger pigeon.

A Step-Backward for Positive-Reinforcement Training Techniques

Then, in the fall of 2004, the National Geographic Channel launched its soon-to-be wildly popular show, The Dog Whisperer. Dominance theory was back in vogue, with a vengeance. Today, everything from housetraining mistakes to jumping up to counter surfing to all forms of aggression is likely to be attributed to “dominance” by followers of the alpha-resurgence.

“But,” some will argue, “look at all the dogs who have been successfully trained throughout the past century using the dominance model. Those trainers can’t be all wrong.”

In fact, harsh force-based methods (in technical parlance, “positive punishment”) are a piece of operant conditioning, and as the decades have proven, those methods can work. They are especially good at shutting down behaviors – convincing a dog that it’s not safe to do anything unless instructed to do something. And yes, that works with some dogs. With others, not so much.

My own personal, unscientific theory is that dog personalities lie on a continuum from very soft to very tough. Harsh, old-fashioned dominance-theory methods can effectively suppress behaviors without obvious fallout (although there is always behavioral fallout) with dogs nearest the center of the personality continuum – those who are resilient enough to withstand the punishment, but not so tough and assertive that they fight back. Under dominance theory, when a dog fights back, you must fight back harder until he submits, in order to assert yourself as the pack leader, or alpha.

Problem is, sometimes they don’t submit, and the level of violence escalates. Or they submit for the moment, but may erupt aggressively again the next time a human does something violent and inappropriate to them. Under dominance-theory training, those dogs are often deemed incorrigible, not suitable for the work they’re being trained for nor safe as a family companion, and sentenced to death. Had they never been treated inappropriately, many might have been perfectly fine.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a very “soft” dog can be easily psychologically damaged by one enthusiastic inappropriate assertion of rank by a heavy-handed dominance trainer. This dog quickly shuts down – fearful and mistrusting of the humans in his world who are unpredictably and unfairly violent.

Most crossover trainers (those who used to train with old-fashioned methods and now are proud to promote positive reinforcement-based training) will tell you they successfully trained lots of dogs the old way. They loved their dogs and their dogs loved them.

I’m a crossover trainer and I know that’s true. I also would dearly love to be able to go back and redo all of that training, to be able to have an even better relationship with those dogs, to give them a less stressful life – one filled with even more joy than the one we shared together.

We Aren’t Dogs, and Our Dogs Know It

Finally, the very presumption that our dogs would even consider we humans to be members of their canine pack is simply ludicrous. They know how impossibly inept we are, for the most part, at reading and understanding the subtleties of canine body language. We are equally inept, if not even more so, at trying to mimic those subtleties. Any attempts on our part to somehow insert ourselves into their social structure and communicate meaningfully with them in this manner are simply doomed to failure. It’s about time we gave up trying to be dogs in a dog pack and accepted that we are humans co-existing with another species – and that we’re most successful doing so when we co-exist peacefully.

The fact is, successful social groups work because of voluntary deference, not because of aggressively enforced dominance. The whole point of social body language rituals is to avoid conflict and confrontation, not to cause it. Watch any group of dogs interacting. Time and time again you’ll see dogs deferring to each other. It’s not even always the same dog deferring:

Dog B: Hey, I’d really like to go first. Dog A: “By all means, be my guest.” Dog B passes down the narrow hallway.

Dog A: “I’d really like to have that bone.” Dog B: “Oh sure – I didn’t feel like chewing right now anyway.” Dog A gets the bone.

Social hierarchies do exist in groups of domesticated dogs and in many other species, including humans, and hierarchy can be fluid. As described above, one dog may be more assertive in one encounter, and more deferent in the next, depending on what’s at stake, and how strongly each dog feels about the outcome. There are a myriad of subtleties about how those hierarchies work, and how the members of a social group communicate – in any species.

Today, educated trainers are aware that canine-human interactions are not driven by social rank, but rather by reinforcement. Behaviors that are reinforced repeat and strengthen. If your dog repeats an inappropriate behavior such as counter surfing or getting on the sofa, it’s not because he’s trying to take over the world; it’s just because he’s been reinforced by finding food on the counter, or by being comfortable on the sofa. He’s a scavenger and an opportunist, and the goods are there for the taking. Figure out how to prevent him from being reinforced for the behaviors you don’t want, and reinforce him liberally for the ones you do, and you’re well on your way to having the relationship of mutual love, respect, communication, and communion that we all want to have with our dogs.

Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. Author of numerous books on positive dog training, she lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center, where she offers dog training classes and courses for trainers.