Strange title for a gardening blog entry, no?
Well, as you already know, my two biggest loves are gardening and dogs (well, there are three, but the third doesn’t apply here lol). I don’t think I’m alone in that. The companionship of a dog and a garden can be equally comforting and rewarding. Over time we learn what makes our plants tick much the same way as we learn about our dogs — we spend time together, we watch, we make deals, we try different methods to get a desired outcome — they are both always a work in progress!
But today I want to talk about how to keep our new dogs safe. It was prompted by the story of Yoghi, a young male Spinone Italiano — aka an Italian hunting dog — who went missing on October 20th in Ottawa, after having just arrived in Canada. Despite two weeks of sightings and 24 hour searching, Yoghi was too fearful and would not be caught. Just barely in advance of winter, he was found today and is now back home in the loving arms of his family.
Truth is, many dogs today are being adopted on foreign shores and then brought back to Canada to start their new lives. The trip can be scary and disorienting, and it is not unusual for a “new Canadian” dog to bolt at some stage during the journey. If it does get into the arms of it’s new owners without incident, it may still be what is known as a “flight risk” — that is, a dog who is easily spooked and must be handled with care and a tremendous amount of safeguards to ensure its security.
But it’s not just foreign dogs who can go AWOL – in truth, any dog who is changing hands can, as can any dog who is spooked by something sudden. Even a dog who has been with you for years can suddenly disappear. So that is why I’ve decided to write about strategies you can use to ensure your dog’s safety.
Our newest dog Scout was a two year old first-time mom when she was abandoned at the vets by her previous owners. She was so scared and confused when she landed at the Humane Society that she needed medication to calm her fears.
Scout is a mixed breed with 1/4 border collie DNA and is the most cuddly and food-motivated dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. However, these character traits weren’t fully obvious at first. I understand that it takes anywhere from 3 to 6 months for a “new” dog to show its true colours. And more than this, it takes an uncertain amount of time for a “new” dog to bond with its new family.
A few months after we adopted her, Scout pushed open our front screen door, ran past my husband, mouth gaping, on the front porch and down the street.
We ran! We called! She stopped, looked at us and kept running in the opposite direction. Thankfully she ran “right” instead of “left” at the bottom of our front steps, a decision which meant we intercepted her in a neighbour’s backyard rather than as a crumbled, lifeless heap in the middle of a very busy four lane thoroughfare.
Truth is, making sure a “new” dog is safe is a multi-pronged endeavour but can mean the difference between life and death. After Scout’s brief adventure, we made sure we put several safety protocols into play so that she would never be at risk again. I share several of them with you here, as well as others that might be useful to you.
1.SECURE THE FRONT DOOR WITH GATES:
After Scout’s getaway, we realized our front door was not secure. So I searched online and in local pet stores for a gate that would be appropriate. Our front door didn’t seem to be “standard”, so many options were simply too big or too small. I didn’t want the type of gate that simply pressed against the door jamb; in my experience, these gates could be pushed out of place. Nor did I want a gate that was too short, as Scout would surely jump over it. I also wanted a gate that could be opened and closed fairly easily for humans, but be more difficult for a dog to do the same — even a border collie! I opted for one that was secured into a bracket that had to be screwed into the jamb. There was a mechanism on top of the gate that allowed it to be opened inwards, meaning it didn’t interfere with the screen door on the other side. This is a version of the gate that we chose.
Then I realized we also needed a barrier for the front porch, as we often sit out there in good weather. The top of our stairs didn’t seem to allow for a built-in wooden gate, so we found something that was sturdy, tall and relatively attractive online: this one is it.
Here are the two gates pictured together…Fort Knox!
Of course I won’t tell you that the opening mechanism on the inside gate kept getting harder and harder to release so I kicked it (really hard) one day and voila, it’s so much easier to operate now <wink>
2.CAR STRATEGIES TO PREVENT BOLTING:
I quickly realized that I could not take Scout in and out of our car through the back hatch. When I lifted it, the opening it created was too large for me to block with my body in case she decided to leap out.
This was before I had had a chance to teach her manners, so I had to think of another solution. I decided to take her in and out from the back seat, even though it meant putting the car barrier between the front and back seats, rendering my vehicle a paddy wagon for whenever my poor parents had to ride with me….
The barrier was necessary because she really wanted to ride in the front seat, ideally with her feet on the dash and her nose pressed closed to the windshield. This riding-in-the-car thing was new to her and she was fascinated by it!
There are plenty of seat covers that work in the back of all cars to keep the seats clean. This is by far a better solution with a dog who may jump out of the car without warning.
The other precaution is either using dog seat belts or tethering the dog inside the car with a leash. Both of these strategies work best with the dog situated in the back seat.
3.WALKING PROTOCOL: LEASHES, COLLARS, HARNESSES:
It is important, even with the most reliable and predictable dog, to ensure that you have control over him/her while you’re out and about walking. Using a collar or harness that they can’t break away from is paramount.
A regular collar with a clip-on leash is totally unreliable: firstly, if the dog pulls or lunges or bolts, either the collar will potentially injure the dog’s larynx OR it will slip right off allowing him/her to get free.
Sophia Yin gives a good analysis of all collar/harness types from the point of view of medical safety in this blog post here. She favours the use of front clip harnesses and head halters. Surprisingly, savvy or insistent dogs can actually rid themselves of a harness, as can be seen in this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKNAw3r2F2g) so never leave a dog unattended while secured using a harness.
Choke chains, prong collars and regular collars are not safe choices unless your dog is very well trained already (some trainers believe the first two choices are not good ones under any circumstance). Martingale collars, which operate under the same principle, that is, tightening as the dog pulls, are a superior choice because of their wider profile and regulated tightening capability.
Whatever you choose, make sure it a) is safe for the dog’s neck and body, and b) doesn’t allow them to escape easily.
Some dog owners fasten their dog’s leash to their waist, so that they don’t have to rely on their hands to keep the leash secure and that their whole body acts as a means to stop their dog from getting loose from a bolt or lunge at full speed. Ruffwear has a great selection of dual purpose hand-held and waist-attached leashes here.
This video shows Scout waiting for her Dad to come out of the washroom at Upper Canada Village wearing her Ruffwear harness, embroidered collar with phone number and leash attached at the chest. You’d think I was torturing her!
Whatever you do, do NOT rely on flexi-leashes to secure your dog. If he/she bolts, even if this leash is attached to a well-made, super secure, front-clip harness (some of the best are also found through Ruffwear here), by the time your dog runs to the end of the flexi-leash’s tether, it will fly out of your hand so fast (perhaps even injuring you in the process) that your dog will be free, dragging the flexi-leash behind him!
Over time with a new dog, being a very judicious trainer will ensure that he/she will have a more predictable behaviour in unpredictable situations.
One of the first things you should teach is “wait” — wait before leaving the house, so that you can lead the way, rather than being pulled out the door and down the stairs. And wait before exiting the car until you have given the say-so. This command alone may save your dog’s life. The other command, in my opinion, equally important to “wait” is a recall. A solid recall is something that you’ll need to practice every day of your dog’s life.
Loose-leash walking is also something that all dogs need to learn. It makes walking together a pleasure instead of a chore and in the end, will save your shoulder sockets and back!
5.WHAT TO DO IF YOUR DOG DOES GET AWAY FROM YOU:
a) Don’t panic!
b) Don’t chase!
c) Use your recall word…if that doesn’t work, try yelling “Puppy, puppy, puppy!”;
d) Run in the opposite direction;
e) Drop to the ground and make high pitched, happy noises;
f) Use treats to get the dog to come closer;
g) Secure the dog with a leash slowly and carefully – no sudden lunges or movements.
There is an excellent blog post on how to navigate what can be a very stress first few moments of a loose dog; you can find it here.
If your dog does not respond to these actions and keeps running or disappears from sight, then immediately take action. Petfinder has a great resource in this article to help you take the appropriate steps when your dog is lost: find it here. The more people you can reach about your lost dog, the better. It often takes a village to return a dog to it’s owner.