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Why punishment isn’t working as a training tool

punishment

A couple of weeks ago, I was at an adoption drive with a few of my kittens. There were a good number of dogs there from local rescues, who were by and large really well behaved given that some had come straight to the event from the pound or rescue facility.

At one point, a guy and his family came in with a beautiful Australian shepherd. Nothing wrong with that. The first thing I noticed was that the dog was wearing a halti. Nothing wrong with that, either, if you want to control rather than eliminate a behaviour. The second thing I noticed was a prong collar.

Yes, a halti and a prong collar. No prizes for guessing that the guy is finding the dog hard to walk.

No prizes either for guessing that neither the prong nor the halti are working. Definitely not on their own, and probably not in combination.

And it’s not hard to realise why.

The dog is severely stressed because he’s come into a place and guess what… right in front of him there are five dogs, two kittens in a cage, at least ten people, all the usual garden centre weirdnesses and smells. There are birds and hamsters, rabbits and fish. You can imagine it, I’m sure.

An environment like this can be either extremely exciting or extremely frightening for a dog. If I brought my super-reactive Heston in here, every single thing would be setting him off. Dogs first. He’d be yanking on the lead to get to them, pulling and making lunges towards them because he really, really, really wants to say hi. Like really. And if I brought my spaniel in here, she’d be barking her head off about stranger dangers. Amigo would be hiding behind my skirt and Tobby would be trying to lick everything that moved. Dogs, like all animals, are either attracted to novelty, or they’re not. For dogs like Heston and Tobby, they love new stuff. Neophilia means that your dog will be interested and curious about new animals or experiences and want to investigate. For dogs like Tilly and Amigo, they are neophobic, and find new experiences, things, people or animals to be overwhelming. Dogs who aren’t bothered either way… I never saw one of those. Even my mattress-back uber-zen Ralf would pull me on my arse through a field full of cows to go see a dog he’d never seen before.

Some dogs are going to be pulling to get nearer, and some dogs are going to be pulling to get away. Either way, they’re less likely to obey your commands whenever you introduce novelty into their lives.

It’s not rocket science to know that I’m not going to take my dogs into a garden centre like this during an adoption event unless I want to see them at their very worst. If I got there and it was a surprise to me, I’d have backed right off and put the dog in the car if I needed to go into the shop to buy something. Avoiding problems is perfectly okay. Our dogs don’t have to be equipped to go into garden centres and meet five strange dogs and twenty strange people at an adoption event. That’s not a usual, daily event for most dogs.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my dogs to socialise and to become habituated to novelty. I like that very much. I like them to go into populated or new areas. I regularly set up situations where my dogs go into town and see all kinds of strange things. I take Heston to the shelter when I drop the van off specifically because he likes meeting other dogs off lead and the dogs who live free at the heart of the shelter are all great dogs for him to do that with. But those are situations I set up as training events to make sure they are prepared for times when they meet other people and dogs, since we don’t meet other people and dogs often on a walk. We don’t walk in urban areas. I don’t ever plan to either. But I never know if I need to go to town with my dogs, or if I’d need to move house at any point to a more urban area, so it’s my duty to ensure that my dogs are not lacking in the ability to cope with novelty, or environments where there is a lot of novelty.

You can read a lot more about this here on Dr Jen’s Dog Blog about why avoiding a problem can work.

As she says, “you have to pick your battles”.

And this guy with the Australian shepherd had clearly picked a battle that he was losing.

I’ll describe what happened next.

He forced his dog to be restrained in approach, getting nearer and nearer to all the adoption dogs. His level of yanking and correction increased to one every ten seconds over a ten-metre approach. Then he stood with his dog, forbidding it to approach the other dogs, holding the dog’s muzzle and preventing it from growling. Finally, the dog gave in, rolled on its back and just lay there.

I’m sure some people would think that looks cute.

That, though, is a dog who is completely broken and has given up. Not cute if you ask me.

And what has the dog learnt?

That when they see other dogs, you hurt him. The more you see other dogs, the more you hurt him. You cut off his oxygen so he can’t think straight. You add a little pain which also increases adrenaline (just ask anyone who loves a little spanking in the bedroom!). In fact, cutting off oxygen, increasing adrenaline and adding pain are three things that people do with other people to ENHANCE excitement in the bedroom!! Yet they are things we do to dogs when they are excited.

Why do we think that they would work to decrease a dog’s stimulation?

In fact, they’re also what we do to other human beings in another setting too. When we cut off the oxygen of another human being, when we hurt them, when we cause them pain to get them to do what we want… it’s called torture. Sometimes it works. Often, just like our dogs, you can increase the pain and it hardens resolve to do a thing. Then you have to increase it more until you ‘break’ the person who’s resisting.

Of course, most of us don’t increase the pain our dogs are enduring to this point. You might think that low levels of ‘correction’ are okay.

But are they really as efficient as you think?

The fact is that pain works. At first. Correction works. At first. Give someone a speeding ticket, and for a few days, they’ll be careful to follow the law. That’s how we work – human beings – rational thinking beings with our giant neo-cortexes who have the power of language to be able to understand cause and punishment.

Imagine though living in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language. A police officer follows you around everywhere, and every time you think you’re doing something right, he tasers you.

And that’s what was happening to the Australian shepherd. In fact, he was just being a dog. In his eyes, he was doing a normal dog thing: wanting to get closer to other dogs to suss them out. In his eyes, it was something natural. Something normal. Something right. He saw other dogs and he wanted to approach them. He’s a social creature. That’s what dogs do. He wanted to go and see these dogs and sort out friends from foes. And every time he tried to, his owner hurt him, restrained him and punished him.

In the 1960s, Dr Martin Seligman and his colleagues undertook a series of what are, quite frankly, disgusting experiments. They wanted to find out about “learned helplessness”. Post-war Americans want to know why people don’t run away or try to escape. It’s a theme that dominates cognitive and behavioural psychology in the post-war era: human beings and what makes us hurt others, what stops us from escaping. 20 years on from the Holocaust and you too might be wondering why so few people tried moves like “The Great Escape”. Why did people just give up? And even when they could escape, why didn’t they? You can imagine the questions in Seligman’s head about why people – with our rational thinking brains, let me stress – give up. Seligman used dogs to find out. It wasn’t intended to be comparative psychology or even animal psychology. It was intended to teach us about humans. Inadvertently, it taught us about dogs.

First, he put them in something called a Pavlovian hammock. That’s a nice way to describe an “inescapable” situation in which a number of dogs were placed. And then he used electric shocks. He taught them that pain was inescapable and unpredictable. He found that these dogs, when later placed in a situation from which they could easily escape, chose not to… even if shocked to the point where their muscles no longer functioned.

His conclusion was that once you have been subject to inescapable punishment, you are so broken that you would choose not to escape even if you could. He called this “learned helplessness”. He thought that this was why people with post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety or other disorders might choose not to end their anguish, even if they could. The escape routes just weren’t visible to them.

punishment

And that is exactly what this Australian shepherd went through, just on a less scientific level. He couldn’t escape the situation and so you can inflict as much pain as you like: he’s just given up.

He’s learned that there is no point resisting. He’s learned something else too.

Like being followed around by a police officer who slaps a fine on you for leaving chopsticks in rice, for blowing your nose, for looking someone in the eye, what you learn is not that you shouldn’t do certain things, but that you are in the company of someone who, to use the words of Nando Brown, is “a bit of a knob”. In other words, you don’t learn that in this foreign country, it’s bad manners to leave chopsticks in rice, to blow your nose in public or to eyeball someone (all things that are well-established cultural patterns in Japan, by the way) what you learn is that the presence of the police officer is a reliable indicator that you might get punished.

The first consequence of using punishment, then, is that you may have to administer increasing ‘doses’ of correction once the dog realises that the punishment is insufficient to make their ‘bad’ behaviour not worth doing. Like if you give me a 1o cent fine every time I swear, the swear box will be filled in no time. In fact, you’re going to have to increase the punishment if what I get from the behaviour is more pleasurable than the punishment is a deterrent. Remember that scene in The Breakfast Club where Paul Gleason is having a showdown with Judd Nelson? The teacher is trying to threaten Judd’s character, student John Bender. In the end, the teacher threatens to put Judd’s character in detention “for the rest of your natural born life if you don’t watch your step”. It doesn’t make much difference and ends up escalating the situation.

That’s what you have to do with punishment and correction: be prepared to escalate it.

In fact though, John Bender is doing resisting for all sorts of reasons. But dogs resist your punishments for one very good one. It’s not resentment. It’s not because they think they’re better than you, they’re dominating you or they’re showing off to their friends. It’s not because they’re social misfits who’ve had a hard life or a sucky home environment. Dogs resist because whatever it is you don’t want them to do is simply more rewarding and reinforcing than you can ever punish them for.

So the dog who wants to run off from the yard and needs a shock collar? The call of the wild is really powerful, or the urge to escape is overwhelming. The dog who barks and needs a shock collar? Barking is obviously really rewarding and reinforcing. You better get a collar that you can turn up, because once your dog realises that the shock isn’t enough to put them off, you’ll need to increase it. And increase it. In fact, you and the collar will probably fail long before the dog’s desire to bark does.

That’s the first consequence of punishment. You’ll need to be prepared to increase it if the dog’s desire to do whatever it was doing is more powerful than the punishment.

The second consequence of punishment is that even if it is predictable, if it works, the dog has not really overcome its behaviour. You’ve just taught the dog that it might as well give in. There is no escape, so give in and you’ll avoid the punishment. That’s not a dog who has mastered its desires or frustrations. It’s a broken dog whose spirit is crushed. That’s “learned helplessness” in action. We see this in concentration camps and in hostage situations, as well as in people suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.

That, then, is not an obedient dog. It is a dog who has learned there is no point.

A third consequence of using punishment is that the main thing your dog will learn is that your presence is a reliable indicator that he might get punished. YOU are the common denominator. Why do you think companies are offering “remote” punishments, so that you don’t even have to be near the dog when you administer a shock? Because the thing the dog learns is not that its behaviour is not desirable to you, only that you are a bit of a knob. But if you use a choke collar, prong collar, a physical reprimand or a physical punishment that you have to be present to administer, YOU become the reliable indicator of pain, not the behaviour.

Some “dog trainers” will tell you that it’s not just this random and dogs will quickly learn that it’s only in certain conditions that you would punish your dog, this is nonsense too. Back to the mean cop example… Even if this police officer restricts himself to only fining you for chopsticks, and you can kind of work out a pattern, that doesn’t work either. That’s why anyone who tells you that a prong collar will work because the dog will learn that it only hurts if he pulls (i.e. there’s a clear condition attached to the punishment) actually is spinning you a line that is quite anti-experience and anti-science. In other words, they’re telling you a complete fabrication that is not rooted in reality.

The reality is that, like this Aussie shepherd, you just become habituated to the pain and need more and more. Where do you go next when a prong collar AND a halti isn’t working? A zappy collar as well? Punches in the nose? A kick to the backside? At what point have you crossed a line into abuse?

Some countries have already decided that shock collars and prong collars have crossed the line.

A final really, really important reason is that punishment is proven to make dogs more aggressive. One day, that dog might really turn around and bite you. If you’ve used physical correction with a dog, you’ve destroyed all trust between you. If you hurt a dog, don’t be surprised if one day it says that enough is enough. It may never get to a bite. But who wants a dog who growls at them, who snarls or snaps out of anger or fear?

It doesn’t take the law of the land to make me realise that punishment is not working as a training tool. Whether you don’t want to have to escalate the punishment to abusive levels, whether you realise that your dog is not obeying and has just learned to give in, whether you don’t want to destroy the trust between you and your dog and ensure your dog ends up more reactive, not less… there are plenty of reasons not to choose punishment as a tool when training.

I want to finish with the story of a malinois who came in the next day. He was wearing a muzzle, so for one reason or another, this is a dog who has a history. His owners had a really loose lead, and whenever the lead got a little tight or the dog was responding negatively, they backed up a little. They went up different aisles. They took their time, gave the dog space, allowed it distance. The muzzle was a very effective way of telling other people to keep their distance as well. Ironic, really. Ten minutes later, the muzzle was off, and the malinois was happily nose-to-nose with some of the dogs for adoption.

These weren’t expert dog trainers. They were just people who understood and responded in ways that got a wanted behaviour from their dog, rather than failing with haltis and prong collars, perhaps leaving the dog with a residual memory that means “when I see other dogs, my owner hurts me” rather than the response you wanted to instill.

I long for the days when we have more Malis in muzzles than Aussie shepherds in haltis and prong collars.

How to manage a multi-dog household

multipledogs

One reason dogs can be surrendered to the refuge is that the dynamic in the group is hard to handle. It’s also a source of a good number of calls post-adoption trying to negotiate pack issues, as adoptants try desperately to ensure everybody rubs along okay. Often, it’s not a problem with their new dog either, or it’s a combination of issues with their new dog and a resident. You can, of course, read up on how to introduce dogs to established groups here and here which should help you a little with that.

The hardest thing for people who have adopted a rescue dog rather than buying a puppy is that you are dealing with dogs who have already established preferences for things but dogs who may have had as little training as a puppy. They come to your home with their baggage about what home means to them, and a set of rules that have been lost in transit. They come with an unknown level of training, too.

You take them from the relative routine and security of a shelter and it’s hard to understand that, often, your new home is WAY more stressful for a dog than a shelter in a range of diverse ways. Shelters don’t have couches. They don’t have five other dogs hanging around you at feeding time. There might not be a squabble over beds, resources or affection. Get a new dog into your canine family and you’ll soon find yourself with dynamics that you just don’t understand. If you’re lucky, there’ll be relatively few teething problems. For most people, though, they’ll find themselves trying to referee issues they really don’t always understand.

Take yesterday, for instance. I spent the day at an event with one of my foster dogs. He’s been here for twelve weeks. There’s been one scrap in that time, but it was all noise and posture. At various points in the day, the dogs are split up. Yesterday, I got back and there was an almighty growling session that lasted a good couple of minutes. It’s hard with your own dogs to remember that growls and grumbles are their way of sorting out their own battles. Sometimes, intervening can make the problem worse, not better. It’s worth seeking advice about how to help out persistent growls and grumbles though.

It is hard to accept as well that dogs have preferences for each other. Although Mim and Fefelle arrived as a pair, they are certainly not a bonded pair. They don’t actually seem that interested in each other. Amigo and Tobby seem to have an easy friendship and never squabble, but they never get cuddly. Tilly and Heston have a tenderness that is quite touching.

We have this vision, however, that dogs are 100% or 0%, or that they have types they prefer. They’re either social or they’re not. They get on with big dogs or they don’t. Both of those things can be true, of course. There are dogs at the shelter who we have consistently been unable to pair up with another, be they male or female, big or small. There are little dogs that we’ve been able to only pair up with giants, and there are big dogs who look at little dogs like they’re the next meal.

The truth is that for most dogs, it’s somewhere in between. Tobby is great at social encounters, except for that one time he wasn’t. Amigo is reserved in social encounters, except for the eight weeks he hated Heston. Heston generally does okay these days despite the fact I spent a good two years of his life thinking he couldn’t tolerate male dogs, and then under the misnomer that it was to do with castration or not. The truth is that he’s as good with boys as he is with girls as long as they’re cool with him. I’ve seen him playing with uncastrated males and castrated males, big and small. So why won’t he play with Féfelle, despite all of Feff’s play overtones? And why do I even care? Is it not enough to say: “He just doesn’t like this dog.”

Sadly, the number of people who expect their dogs to play with each other or even like each other means that there are very high expectations placed on dogs and we don’t always do our best to manage a multi-dog household. We also have high expectations of the level of training of a new introduction, and their lack of training sometimes means we might blame them for problems that are really nothing to do with their behaviour, per se. The first step is to truly accept that dogs, like people, have preferences. You don’t know why that is. None of us do. Until dogs can explain stuff to us, we’re not likely to know, no matter how much we study them or how well we know them. The second step is to accept that it’s not easy to understand what’s going on between dogs. The new dog isn’t always the problem.

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My baseline is expecting dogs to tolerate each other. If you start with that as your baseline, you’ll feel much more confident about their progress. Accept too that fights may seem loud, violent and dramatic, but know that your dogs could, if they wanted to, have killed the other. I’d advise you to seek out help if your dogs have had a fight, especially one where there were wounds, but know too that many dogs go on to live peaceably with each other if they are carefully managed afterwards. Most dogs’ scuffles don’t escalate, but I really recommend you get a professional opinion if your dogs come to blows.

Be aware that your other dogs may well have joined in, and that they won’t always side with the established pack member. Dogs have remarkable social talents (better than we know or understand) and a strong sense of social justice within a group. It’s not uncommon for dogs  to intervene to keep the peace or to tell off the dog who’s crossing boundaries, even if that is a dog who’s been with you for years!

What follows are ten things you can do that will make your multi-dog household easier to manage. It’s a great reminder each time a new dog joins your group, even if you are a seasoned fosterer with a high volume of dogs through your home each year. You may not need to do all the things on the list: it depends on your dog family.

The ten things you can do to manage your multi-dog household

  1. Manage food! Food is such a flashpoint for a lot of dogs. If your dogs are working on tolerating each other, feeding separately can help. Eating requires you to be relaxed. You can’t rest and digest if you are stressed. Imagine trying to eat if you’re sitting next to someone you think is a serial thief out to steal the most important thing in your day. It’s a situation that is edgy and confrontational. Space is your best friend here (and you can use the 3Ds from the last post to bring bowls into the same room). If you want your dogs to get along, don’t force them to eat near each other until you know how much they will tolerate it. No matter how comfortable I am with the tolerance levels between mine, I never, ever leave them unattended whilst they eat. With new dogs, they eat in a different room and there are always two doors between them. I gauge the dog’s food reactions before using those 3Ds to bring bowls closer over time.
  2. Manage treats. If you have resource guarders, those habits will be intensified in a multi-dog home. Treats should be instant and go from your hand to their mouth. We’re at the rawhide stage here, where they will tolerate longer chews, but if there are dogs who haven’t finished, it’s grounds for bickering. So two have weenies. Four have bigger treats. And I do a trade-swap and take every single treat off those guys before they’ve finished, rewarding with a high-value quick treat like a piece of ham. It’s up to me to read the situation and know who is bored and likely to need to move on, causing the inner guarder to erupt in those who are enjoying their chew. Again, the 3Ds will help you to move from ‘Can’t stand the way that beast is eating his treat’ to easy respect.
  3. Manage toys. Again, toys are a valued asset. Many people think it’s really sad that my dogs don’t have free access to toys. I am not. I am very glad that I have a home without jealousy and bloodshed. And a home without Heston dropping toys at my feet when I’m teaching, attempting to engage me in a bit of play. We have toys. We have supervised play time every day. Tobby is allowed to walk around with his toy – as long as I have other dogs who tolerate that. Sadly, no toys for Tobby when I have new dogs, especially puppies. I’ll reintroduce them gradually, but under supervision. Toys can quickly become flashpoints with over-excited playful dogs.
  4. Manage beds. If anything causes agitation here with new dogs, it’s the “where do I sleep?” question. Couches are a privilege here, not a right. You only get on a couch if you will get off it when asked. You’re allowed to have a preference as long as you don’t grumble at others who bother you. I’m happy to move newbies out of my own dogs’ spaces if it’s bothering them. I choose where they sleep those first few days, and I do that by asking my dogs to stick to their favoured places so that the new arrivals can make their own choices. Crates can help that if your dogs are crate trained, but crate training can be difficult and time-intensive. Having more than one dog is not a reason to put them all on lock-down. I always think it’s my goal to facilitate their comprehension of each other. I’m not doing that if they’re on lockdown permanently. A bit of Goldilocksing is okay at the beginning, but a dog who bullies another for a bed or a ‘dog in a manger’ who starts lying in another dog’s bed for kicks when they never have before are both situations that need a bit of managing.
  5. Manage space and alone time. When a new dog arrives, I don’t leave them with my own dogs. If I have to lock a door and use the two-doors-between-them policy, I will. I also like my dogs to feel happy with themselves and picking their own space. Every dog should be able to get away from the others. For instance, when we’re in the garden and I sit down, there’s some good distance between most of them. Many dogs appreciate their own space (which is why crates can work in a multi-dog household, but separate rooms can work just as well.) Let’s face it: you’d fall out with people who you were with 24/7. That’s not healthy at all. Neither, though, is it viable for dogs to have to live separate lives. They want to be with you, and to deprive them of that contact because you have to split your time between warring factions is neither necessary nor healthy. A behaviorist can really help your Kramer vs Kramer dogs if it’s really not working.
  6. Manage doorways. Doorways and narrow spaces can cause real conflict. Corridors, landings and stairways can also be flashpoints because they are so enclosed. Yes, I forgot this yesterday. I got back with one of my fosters after a day out and we unlocked the door to two minutes of growling and snapping. I should have managed it better. It’s worth bearing in mind that reintroductions of dogs can be fraught with tension, which is why I would not recommend those separate rooms for very long times. I like my dogs to be able to choose to go into another room and settle down, or go outside if they want, but bear in mind that constantly splitting up and reintroducing two dogs who have a hard time tolerating each other can make it way, way worse. That is tripled if you do it in a small space.
  7. That said, have alone time with each of your dogs if possible to encourage their preferences and build your bond with them. That can be cuddles on the couch, a walk in the park, a ride in the car, a grooming session, a nap in the garden, games, treat sessions, agility training, obedience training or other activities. Don’t expect all your dogs to enjoy doing the same things, especially if they are diverse breeds and ages or health levels. You don’t have to split them up to do this.
  8. Spend time working with them as a group and getting them to do group things, like “sit” or “wait”. When you have 180kg of dog as I do at the moment, the last thing you need is dogs who can’t wait or who barge you. A group “wait” is vital. A group “sit” can start that off. A group “all eyes on me” can also help them take their minds off each other and focus on you. And, let’s face it, if time with you and other dogs is highly rewarding, it won’t take long for grumbles to cease.
  9. Teach “Enough” to those dogs who compete for affection or attention, and be prepared at the beginning of your newly-formed group to have to reduce petting to a minimum as well. I’ve found that calling a dog who is greedy for affection, or going to them when they are calm or quiet is great. Teaching “Enough” will also stop them coming and sticking their dirty great heads in when you’re petting others. Guess what? The 3Ds work here too! Pet your dogs separately and build in petting if you have a dog who is greedy for affection. In this case, you are their resource and it does you no favours to oblige them every time they demand love. Neither, though, does it do you any favours to punish them or completely ignore them. Don’t accept impatience or bad manners. Adult dogs do need to be taught that all good things come to those who wait if you want them to be patient and polite. Don’t just expect it, or put it down to ‘jealousy’. It’s just something they haven’t learned yet.
  10. Practise walking on leash all together. Someone asked me how I walk all my dogs… well, we know where we walk! And although we often go places where we don’t always need to be on a leash, I practise anyway. My own dogs know where they walk and although it takes a bit of time to walk with a new dog as well, we manage. I like to walk my dogs. I appreciate there are times when I might have one or two on the leash, all four off leash, or times when I need all four on leash. Guess what? Those times when I need to put all four on leash are times when they’re highly reactive, stressed, excited – blah blah. The last thing I need is to have four dogs who are uncontrollable on the leash. Any reputable dog walking business will give you great guidance on how to do that.

You will also find lots of great guidance in two of Jean Donaldson’s books, Fight! and Mine! as well as with Patricia McConnell’s book, Feeling Outnumbered.

Knowing these ten simple things and reminding yourself of them can be the difference between a hostile, tense household and one that is calm, relaxed and at ease.

5 common canine illnesses and diseases in France

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At the refuge, with so many dogs living in one space and over a thousand animals through our gates every year, we see more than our fair share of illnesses and diseases. Many of these can be fatal if undetected. Worse are those which can be fatal even if detected. Saddest are those which are completely preventable with a common vaccine.

Some of the diseases and ailments we see at the refuge are not common in the UK and knowing their symptoms can save your dog’s life.

Dogs in France are routinely vaccinated against canine distemper (maladie de Carré) infectious canine hepatitis (hépatite) parvovirus  and leptospirosis. Many dogs are also vaccinated against rabies, and this is a compulsory condition for all Category 1 and 2 dogs.  If your dog is often in kennels or social doggie surroundings you can also vaccinate them against kennel cough. Vaccines are also being seen for piroplasmosis (babesia canis) and Lyme disease which are often contracted through tick bites. Although at the refuge we do not see many cases of distempter or hepatitis, we see parvovirus frequently, as well as kennel cough.

Parvovirus

Parvovirus is a highly contagious viral illness seen in two main forms. The first form is the one we see most commonly at the refuge. It is characterised by vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, lethargy, fever or low temperature, a rapid heartbeat, engorged lips and eyes, a painful abdomen and a loss of appetite. Symptoms can appear rapidly and are often extreme. Dogs may not present with all symptoms. Lack of fluid and nutrients is a major issue for dogs with parvo, and your vet may recommend keeping them in at the surgery and putting them on a drip to keep them hydrated and give them the nutrients they need. Parvovirus can be transmitted by direct contact with an infected dog, or by fecal-oral transmission (Rover sniffing another dog’s business). It is resistant to many cleaning products, can live for up to a year in infected soil and is very difficult to get rid of, which is why there are outbreaks in shelters that can be hard to get rid of. Sadly, this means that weaker, older or young dogs who have not been vaccinated arrive at the pound and do not have the antibodies to fight off the virus. The survival rate for dogs is good if they are given intravenous nutrients and antibiotics, but there is no medication that can treat a virus: your vet can only support your pet in fighting off the infection themselves. This is why it is particularly important that vulnerable dogs are vaccinated.

The second strain of parvovirus is seen more in puppies and young dogs. This attacks the heart and is often fatal for young puppies.

At the refuge, we see both types. With so many dogs in weak conditions, it can be fatal. All dogs are routinely vaccinated, but if they have caught the virus before they are vaccinated, the vaccine is ineffective.

What to look for: vomiting, diarrhea, blood in vomit or feces, fever, lethargy, reddened eyes and gums

Kennel Cough

Quacking-like coughs are often the first sign of kennel cough. Many dogs will get kennel cough at least once in their lives. Vulnerable dogs are more at risk. It can be caused by viruses or bacteria, and if your vet tests for bacteria, they may prescribe an antibiotic, although for many dogs, rest and hydration are sufficient to help them overcome the disease. Many vets will diagnose based on symptoms, such as coughing, retching, nasal discharge, pneumonia, lethargy or loss of appetite rather than prescribing antibiotics however. It is very rarely life-threatening and mostly clears up without medical treatment or intervention. As the name implies, it is often contracted by dogs in kennels, because like the common cold or the flu virus, it passes quickly in crowded surroundings. Kennel cough is not the only disease to have coughing as a symptom, so if you are worried or the coughing lasts more than a couple of days, see your vet immediately. As with vomiting and diarrhea, severity, frequency and duration are the key things to monitor.

What to look for: a quack-like cough or repeated, nagging cough, shortness of breath

Demodetic and Sarcoptic Mange

Mange is a common condition of a small number of animals brought to the refuge, evidenced by scaly patches, hair loss and sometimes skin lesions. It is caused by overpopulation of the mites which live in the hair follicles of a dog. It can be localised or found all over a dog’s body. Another form of mange is sarcoptic mange which kind of the doggie equivalent of scabies. Both kinds can be passed from mothers to their offspring, so it is often seen in puppies. Sarcoptic mange is highly contagious and it is advisable for you to keep your dog in quarantine if your dog has it. If you notice excessive scratching, hair loss and scabbiness, mange could very well be the reason. It is usually treated with regular medicinal shampooing or creams. Other infections can manifest themselves as ringworm (a fungus) which is most commonly identified through reddened skin, circular lesions, hair loss, itchiness and dandruff, or earmites, identified through ear scratching, stinky ears, a dark waxy substance and head shaking. Many forms of mange are highly contagious and although it is distressing for the dog, leading to complications with breathing, it is not usually fatal unless there are complications resulting from lesions. Most are treated with creams or medications.

What to look for: hair loss, itching, lesions, dandruff

Bloat and stomach torsions

A number of dogs die at the refuge every year as the result of bloat, leading to a stomach torsion. Bloating is always an emergency and one that is sadly very difficult to treat. Once bloat has started, it is very difficult to rectify without surgery. Prevention is more efficient than treatment. Bloat can affect dogs at any age and in any physical condition. It more commonly affects deep-chested dogs like Great Danes, Leonbergers and even large setters or pointers.

Preventing bloat relies very much on care with feeding and exercise. Dogs at risk should not be fed and exercised at the same time: exercising a dog with a full stomach can be one way that the gases build up in the stomach and cannot dissipate. You can notice bloat as the stomach is usually distended and hard. Excessive drooling, frothy spittle, light-coloured gums, a strong desire to regurgitate without the ability to do so and a weak heartbeat are also symptoms. Getting your dog to vomit can be effective – and the easiest way to do this can be through motion. A ride in the car to the vet’s can be effective – not only to see the vet but to induce vomiting. Excessive drinking can also cause bloat. This is why it is not a good idea to exercise dogs too hard during warm weather as they may drink too much and suffer from bloat as a consequence. Small meals fed several times a day rather than one meal can also help. Avoiding foods likely to swell in the stomach such as certain dog kibble or bread may prevent bloat, as will methods that force your dog to slow down when eating, such as specialist dog bowls. Bloat is known to affect not only certain breeds, but males over the age of seven, dogs that are only fed once a day rather than twice a day, dogs that eat rapidly, dogs who exercise immediately after eating and dogs who are anxious or fearful. If you think that your dog has stomach bloat, do not wait. Take them to the vet immediately. Even twenty minutes can be too long. In French, mention “torsion d’estomac” or “dilation de l’estomac” to your vet on the phone and they will no doubt meet you straight away at the surgery.

What to look for: frothing at the mouth, unsuccessful attempts to vomit, a swollen/hard abdomen (just below ribcage) light-coloured gums, lethargy

Parasites and worms

At the refuge, there are are many staff and volunteers who have become experts at poo inspections. Consistency, frequency and colour are often tell-tale signs of other infections. Although giardia may not be a word many are familiar with, it can also spread quickly among animal populations. This gastrointestinal parasite is responsible for explosive diarrhea, often very light in colour and with a very strong smell. The feces may also be greasy-looking or frothy. They contract the parasites through contact with other dogs and through oral-fecal contamination. As you can imagine, trying to keep dogs who live in kennels away from any contaminated spots can be very difficult. Treatment is usually effective but since many dogs lose weight rapidly with giardia, it may also cause further complications through weight loss. Dehydration and lack of nutrients need to be watched for, as they do with any prolonged period of diarrhea. If your dog has explosive diarrhea that has a very strong odor, but does not seem to be in ill health otherwise (perhaps weight loss, of course) then giardia may be the cause. Isolation and clearing up of fecal matter is vital, as is keeping coats clean. Many dogs will involuntarily reinfect themselves through cleaning their fur or licking themselves.

Worms are also another parasite that you may not take too seriously, treating easily and quickly with a wormer. For vulnerable animals, worms can be fatal. Many puppies (and kittens) who arrive at the refuge have already picked up worms through their mother’s milk and if their mother has not been wormed or has worms herself, these worms can quickly be fatal. They are uncomfortable for the animals, causing intestinal cramps and pain, as well as bloating, diarrhea and respiratory problems. They can also cause blockages, which are often fatal. Many times they are easy to identify in young animals as they have a distinct ‘pot-bellied’ appearance. Roundworms are particularly persistent little beggars and their eggs can live for years meaning that you don’t just need to administer a wormer but keep the environment clean too. Eggs are dropped in poo which even if cleaned up properly can easily be trodden in by another dog. All it takes is a lick of the paws and the worms have found their new host. For this reason, it is vital that young pups are kept in a sterile environment and wormed regularly. Worms don’t just live in the intestines: they can pass into the liver and lungs. One wormer might not do the trick for those that have been living outside the intestines: a repeated dose after a short interval should pick up those that drop into the intestine the second time. Tapeworms are the recognisable worms we see in feces, looking like a small grain of rice. Heartworms are a rarer parasite but can be fatal to animals. It is passed by mosquito bites, like leishmaniasis is spread by sandflies.

What to look for: diarrhea, respiratory problems, bloating, “pot-belly”, pain on pressing the abdomen

Conclusion

A good worming and vaccination programme, regular treatment with a flea, fly and mosquito repellent and an eye on what your dog has their nose in will usually keep most of these illnesses and diseases at bay. With a little care and attention, none of these common ailments need be an issue for most dog owners.

It is not easy to keep your dog’s nose out of whatever may take their interest, or to ensure they are not walking through environments rife with all kinds of health threats, so there will undoutedly be times when your dog has diarrhea or vomiting. There are many times when dog owners worry about diarrhea and vomiting, which can be frequent occurrences in a dog’s life. You know best when either is a sign of something more serious. If blood is present in either, seek immediate medical attention. It may only be that your dog has burst a blood vessel in their stomach through repeated vomiting, or that they have a lower intestinal bleed as a result of more frequent or painful bowel movements, but blood in vomit or feces is the first reason to visit the vet. If in doubt, pay the vet a visit. The internet is neither veterinarian nor pharmacist, and hearing of someone “curing” a newly-adopted dog’s diarrhea with a dose of gaviscon because they’d read about it on the internet not only could have caused many complications but also led to the dog being removed from the home. As most pet owners understand, you cannot take risks with medication and treatment and your vet should always be your first port of call.

Regulated Dog Breeds

For ex-pats who bring dogs into France, the laws concerning specific breeds can be a nightmare, especially where staffies are concerned. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier (SBT) or staffie is a breed loved by English people, yet can cause you legal issues in France unless you have all the breed paperwork. Even then, you may find yourself in a paperwork minefield. Outlined in this post are all the laws regarding regulated dog breeds in France, including information from Staffie Rescue Association.

In France, two “categories” of dogs exist. The first category is known as the “Attack Dog” category; the second is known as the “Guard Dog or Defence Dog” category. The laws are strict regarding these dogs. You have many obligations and there are certain requirements in order to own a dog of either category.

Category 1

This category is mainly concerned with dogs who are not registered on a genealogical record. In France, this is called the LOF or livre des origines françaises record, and it records the lines of all breeds. Category 1 dogs conform physically to the ‘standards’ of the following dogs:

  • Unregistered Staffordshire Terrier or American Staffordshire Terrier, often known as Amstaffs or Pitbulls (NB this does not include SBTs, but this comes with a strong proviso)
  • Boerbulls
  • Unregistered Tosa

Please note that whilst the French call a Boerbull a ‘mastiff’, this does not mean that all mastiffs are banned. Indeed, most mastiff breeds are not category dogs at all. The Boerbull or Boerboel is sometimes called the South African Mastiff. These are not restricted dogs in the UK and it is feasible that any mastiff that a qualified vet deems as being a boerbull may be subject to the consequences of the conditions. If you import a mastiff into France, please note that if you do not have pedigree paperwork for it, you may be facing a long legal battle to keep it. Even if you have UK paperwork for a mastiff, you may find that the French vets are unwilling to accept it and that you have to go through the processes connected to Category 1 dogs.

The same is true of SBTs. In the UK, the breed standard has become so polluted and focused on size and strength that a pedigree SBT may be categorised as a Category 1 dog in France. Your UK kennel club paperwork may not be worth anything if your SBT is particularly large. Indeed, all the Cat 1 dogs at the refuge are dogs that would happily pass breed standards in the UK.

Japanese Tosa are a restricted breed in the UK. Here, they are subject to heavy restrictions.

What are the conditions for keeping a Category One dog?

  1. You cannot buy, sell or give away a category one dog. If your SBT or mastiff has pups in France with a non-LOF dog, these are considered Category One dogs. You cannot import these dogs.
  2. You must have a permit to keep Category dogs. This involves two things. The first is a training course for the owners. From this, you will receive a certificate saying that you are capable of handling a dangerous dog. You must have this certificate before you can apply to keep a category dog. The course is seven hours long and must be delivered by a state-certified dog trainer. There is a theoretical and a practical test. Your dog does not have to be present as part of the training and the certificate is relevant for any category dogs – not just one. The second aspect of this permit is for dogs aged between 8 and 12 months and must be done periodically once they reach this age. They must undergo a behavioural evaluation by a qualified vet who has a licence to assess behaviour. The vet will send a copy to the mairie of the commune where you live. Dogs are judged on a scale of 1-4, with 1 being ‘no particular danger’ and 4 being ‘high risk of being dangerous to certain people or in certain situations’. This evaluation must be redone periodically depending on their position on the scale. You are responsible for the fees of the 7 hour training course and the vet’s behavioural assessment of your dog. Once you have these two elements, you can apply for a permit. Please note that having both of these elements does not mean your mairie will automatically grant you a permit. You must own a permit for each category dog in your possession. You must also supply a copy of their identification details (i.e. a passport or ICAD form), a copy of their rabies jabs (compulsory vaccination every year), a copy of the behavioural assessment, a copy of your own handlers’ certificate, and a copy of your home insurance indicating you are insured for a category dog. For dogs in category 1, you must also have the dog sterilised and provide proof of this. If you move to a new commune, you need a new permit. As long as the behavioural assessments, rabies vaccinations and insurance are all up to date and you do not move to a new commune, your permit will remain valid. If you do not have the permit, your dog can be taken from you and put in a public pound or euthanised. You will also be fined 750€ for each dog without a permit. 
  3. You cannot take your dog into public places, other than on public footpaths. That means you are heavily restricted as to where you can walk them. You cannot take them to cafés or on public transport, or any other public place – other than the footpath. You also cannot live in shared accommodation.
  4. All Category 1 dogs must be sterilised.
  5. All Category 1 dogs must be muzzled and on a lead in public. They may only be walked by an adult.
  6. You must have your dog chipped or identified by tattoo.

Category 2

This category concerns pedigree Tosa, Rottweilers and Amstaffs who have genealogical paperwork from LOF. Please note that the Rottweiler is not a restricted breed in the UK, but it is in France. You cannot import a rottweiler into France without following French regulations. Mixed breed dogs who resemble Rottweilers are also category two dogs.

To keep a category two dog, you must have the relevant paperwork and you must muzzle your dog in public. They must be walked at all times by an adult and cannot be let off lead in public places. The same rules apply as for Category 1 dogs, except sterilisation is not compulsory. Given that any accidental litters from a pedigree dog are automatically considered category 1, though, it is advisable to get your dog sterilised if you cannot absolutely guarantee this condition.

People aged under 18 are not allowed to own a dog of either category. Those with criminal records are not allowed to own category dogs. Even a suspended sentence means you cannot own a category dog.

Things to note:

  • Although Rotties are not category dogs in the UK, they are here.
  • Although your staffie may have UK kennel club paperwork, it may not be acceptable if your dog conforms physically to the size and shape of an Amstaff, which many UK pedigree staffies do.
  • SBTs without any paperwork are considered as category one dogs.
  • You need paperwork to prove your dog is included in the French LOF. This is called a Certificat de Naissance.
  • You also need an identity card for your dog. This comes from SCC (société centrale canine) or ICAD (identification de carnivores domestiques)
  • Do not buy an SBT in France if it does not have a Certificat de Naissance from LOF. It is illegal to do so.
  • The only things that stop your SBT being considered a Category One dog are its inclusion in the LOF database and its Certificat de Naissance.
  • If you want further information about SBTs, or you would like to adopt one, please contact the Staffie Rescue Association who can also provide you with a list of good breeders.
  • If your SBT has pups with a dog not included in LOF as a SBT the pups will automatically be considered category one dogs.
  • The Dogo Argentino is not a restricted breed in France, but it is in the UK, which has implications for those who wish to move back to the UK.

For dedicated and keen enthusiasts, keeping a category two dog is straightforward. Although you may not like the muzzle and lead restrictions, France has much more freedom than the UK, except for rottweilers. The rules regarding SBTs are clear and most staffie lovers would be surprised to see how small French-bred SBTs are in comparison with their UK relatives who have unfortunately suffered from unregulated overbreeding over successive decades in the UK.