No Parking

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to bite in the UK with what seems like the beginning of the wave of infections, many dog owners must be very worried about how they will keep their dogs exercised and happy over the coming days and weeks, and perhaps months.

Not every dog owner has a garden and many have very small spaces, perhaps not even with grass. The National Trust, Royal Parks and many local authority parks have already closed gated green spaces and some car parks.

Government advice at time of writing is that one outing a day is permitted to exercise, including walking dogs.

It should be obvious that ensuring one’s own safety as well as that of other people is of the utmost urgency, but the behaviour of many people over the last weekend beggared belief.

Please remember the importance of keeping your dog mentally stimulated and, whilst physical activity outdoors may be limited, keep up and even enhance your training regime, play brain games and keep your dog challenged mentally.

Keep your distance from other people while out walking and take bio-security precautions if you are helping with a dog belonging to someone who is symptomatic or ill.

Keep well, keep safe, keep stimulated!

Going Viral

dog in face mask

Update: March 29th: The Pomeranian dog in Hong Kong that tested positive for Covid-19 tested negative again and was allowed to go home on March 8th. The dog died on March 16th. However, the owner refused to allow a post mortem examination so no cause of death could be confirmed. The dog was 17 years old.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has stated that “There is no evidence that dogs play a role in the spread of this human disease or that they become sick.”

The media has been awash with articles about Covid-19 and the emergent coronavirus in the last few weeks. It is perhaps not surprising that dogs are now featuring in media stories given how many dogs are living in close quarters with humans worldwide.

In fact, humans are more likely to pass on MRSA to their dogs or pick up various zoonoses, including via feeding raw food.

At the moment, it is not possible to tell how infections of coronavirus will progress, but there is a certain amount of hype and panic because bad news sells media advertising. In perspective, approximately 3,000 have died as a result of contracting Covid-19: seasonal influenza is estimated to kill between 100 and 200 times as many humans annually.

The latest sensational headline concerns a dog in Hong Kong that has tested as “weak positive” for coronovarius following infection of his owner.

Mass culling of dogs already occurs in response to rabies outbreaks, in spite of the fact that it is ineffective in curbing the disease. It would be horrific if dogs were to suffer because of panic over this current disease outbreak. Let us hope that common sense prevails; after all, the dog is likely to have inhaled virus shed by his owner as it seems highly unlikely that Covid-19 could have jumped species so quickly.

Larking In The Park

dog park There has been much fuss recently over a New York Times article pointing out the negative impact of dog parks which has now been picked up the BBC in their Radio 4 consumer programme You and Yours for two days running.

The situation in many US states is rather different to that pertaining in the UK where, in spite of access problems in some areas, restrictions on dogs are not quite so widespread. Michigan and Pennsylvania have state-wide “leash laws” that require owners to keep dogs on leads when off their one premises, although challenges have been raised via case law in Pennsylvania where the intent of the law was clarified to be about prevention of roaming other then preventing off-lead exercise.
Several other states prohibit dogs from being off-lead in public parks which had led to the development of the “dog park”: an enclosed area where dogs are permitted off lead. Many mandate that dogs are kept on lead in areas inhabited by livestock or wildlife.

As in the UK, dog-friendly areas vary greatly from small, sterile, parasite-ridden spaces to reasonably large areas. Urban owners are often far better served by varied dog-friendly areas to let their dogs run the owners in the countryside and the density of the dog population is higher.

As ever, the real problem is that owners do not understand their dog’s requirements for stimulation and training and far too many owners purchase dogs and then outsource their care to unqualified, incompetent walkers. The chaos that this has caused in many parks with large numbers of out of control dogs causing havoc and often being abused by their handlers led to many local authorities imposing restrictions on the number of dogs that can be walked at any one time. This in turn led to walkers going out in pairs or groups and further problems led to bans.

Many dogs are now taken out of town, with farmers hiring out fields. Far from solving problems, they continue even further away from owners and are also a poor use of agricultural land.

So are “dog parks” bad?

Well, quality off-lead stimulation and exercise is always good even if the space in which it occurs is not ideal, but how much better would it be if owners would refrain from getting a dog when they don’t have enough time or the inclination to undertake the majority of their care, if dog walkers where trained and regulated and if dogs were so well-adjusted and trained that they could be taken anywhere without fear of incident.

£8, 743 Or A Basket? – You Choose

A seemingly random choice, but one that was all too real for the dog owner prosecuted when a postal worker lost two fingers delivering a card to her address.

No amount of money can make up for the pain, shock and permanent disability suffered by the postal worker and all because the owner couldn’t be bothered to fix a basket to her door and then train her dog not to react.

The Communication Workers Union reported 2,484 dog attacks on postmen and women in the UK in 2019 – a 9% increase compared with 2018 and resulting in 47 attacks every week. 82% of injuries occurred at the front door or in a garden.

It is a simple matter to isolate a dog before opening a door or to fix a basket to catch the post. After all, the dog that bit the postal worker’s fingers is also now at risk from being put down if any other incident occurs through no fault of its own and the owner has a criminal record for having a dog that ws dangerously out of control.

The Silent Victims of Poverty

Years of austerity take their toll on companion animals as well as humans.

Successive PAW Reports from the PDSA have shown that most owners grossly underestimate the cost of keeping a pet, with 62% of dog owners having unrealistic expectations. 16% of them purchased a dog because their children demanded it.

Of the people in the lowest third of national income levels:
82% have not registered their animal with a vet
12% have not registered with a vet
24% have not neutered
37% have not vaccinated
40% have not followed up with boosters
33% have no de-wormed
22% have not de-flead
61% are not insured.

Food banks are now being opened up to provide pet food. Owners may compromise on the quality of diet provided because they do not want to pay more or because of the need to budget. Either way, dogs may be being fed a poor diet, which of course makes it more likely that they may become unwell, leading to requirements for further expenditure.

Not for noting has the PDSA have labelled companion animals the “silent victims of poverty”.

Ban The Bang

As the nights close in, the inevitable countdown to “firework season” begins for many animals owners, not to mention an increasing number of people such as those with cognitive decline or PTSD who are just as confused and/or distressed.

In spite of several attempts to persuade the UK government to ban the public sale of fireworks, they refuse to take a lead and change the current, unworkable legislation regarding fireworks.

So, it’s good to hear that the supermarket Sainsbury’s has taken a lead and decided not to sell fireworks in its stores. Now, whilst it’s perfectly possible that the decision is entirely commercial, the effect is that it removes the option from a major retailer and, given the support shown on Sainsbury’s Twitter account from a variety of sources, will provide positive publicity for the retailer to boot.

It may well be that other retailers decide to follow Sainsbury’s lead which can only be beneficial to all who dread having to cope with the trauma, the workers in emergency services who do not have to risk their own safety or people who just want a decent night’s sleep.

In the meantime, there is much that can be done to mitigate the effects of fireworks so that cosy dark nights and autumn colours can become enjoyable again. Contact a qualified, registered behaviourist for advice.

Not Brain Surgery or Rocket Science but…

Clicker training and its human equivalent TAG Teaching is becoming increasingly popular in many fields, not least in trainings dogs – and owners.

At its simplest, clicker training uses a marker (often, but not always a clicker) to inform the learner when a desired behaviour has been performed and, once it has been paired with a reward, that a reward is forthcoming. Pairing the click with the reward uses classical conditioning, discovered by Nobel prize winning scientist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov in the early years of the 20thC. The development of the technique to train animals using what was then termed as operant conditioning came in the mid-20thC with BF Skinner.

Karen Pryor discovered Skinner’s work in the 1960s when tasked with training dolphins, since when it has been used to teach a wide variety of animals without using the punishment that was often directly and indirectly applied by trainers. She can also be credited as a pioneer in spreading the technique throughout the dog world.

Theresa McKeon, Joan Orr and Beth Wheeler then adapted the technique for teaching humans and named it TAG Teach. It has not only been used to train dog owners, but athletes, golfers, dancers, business managers, occupational safety trainers and managers and in students with special educational needs, especially autism.

The principles behind clicker training and TAG Teach can be applied to any learning. Positive reinforcement has been proven in many studies to be far more effective that traditional correction-based teaching and can be an important aspect in maintaining good mental health in traditionally pressured learning environments such as dance and medicine.

Now that achievement has been recognised by the science community in the awarding of an IgNobel prize to Karen Pryor and Theresa McKeon for their published paper describing how TAG Teaching improved the teaching and learning in students and practitioners undertaking two complex surgical tasks.

The Ig Nobel prizes were first awarded in 1991 by journalist and Harvard graduate Marc Abrahams. Some awards are pure jokes, satirising anti-science such as homeopathy and even being “awarded” to fictional characters. However, many reward genuine scientific achievements, albeit those that are regarded as being a little off the beaten track.

Of course, those of us that use clicker training and TAG teaching in our daily practice think that nothing could be more normal, but if the “improbable research” label helps it to become more widely known, all power to its elbow.

…and congratulations to the winners.

Banking On It

Assistance dog using ATM Increasingly local authorities, transport companies and businesses are removing payment options and attempting to force people to connect to the internet via computer or mobile telephone. This is frequently done in the name of convenience, but it is pretty one-sided and has everything to do with cutting jobs and costs and nothing to do with providing good service.

Whilst 95% of UK households own a mobile telephone, the 5%, representing nearly 3.5 million people. The Office for National Statistics found that, in 2018, 8.4% of adults had never used the internet and 7% of those that had were victims of online fraud. 33% of people who did not undertake online shopping cited security problems as the reason.

Meanwhile, bank closures continue apace as do closures of ATMs. More than 3,000 banks representing one third of UK branches have closed since 2015 and others have reduced their hours. Coupled with poor or non-existent public transport in rural areas, this has the potential to leave the most disadvantaged in society unable to access their own money.

So what has this got to do with dogs?

Service dogs are often trained to assist with using ATMs, but the design needs to incorporate a ledge on which the dog can rest his paws and there needs to be plenty of room behind. Even where ATMs still exist, they may not therefore, be accessible.

Time to take the banks to task and stop the rot, for everyone’s sake.

Going To Extremes

Whilst the world seems to be becoming increasingly stressful for humans and dogs, it seems that some people can’t get enough of an adrenalin rush. So-called extreme sports have attracted sufficient attention in recent years to be a magnet for advertising and now, it seems, dogs are being hauled along for the ride too.

There is no doubt that one of the best things about living with a social animal such as a dog is that so many activities can be shared. Many dogs would benefit from being included in far more of their owner’s life instead of being shunted off to dog walkers, kennels or left on their own. Many more would benefit from the stimulation of sharing in an activity, competitive or otherwise. The Campaign for Responsible Dog Ownership actively promotes inclusion and better access for dogs in many walks of life (no pun intended).

However, canine welfare must always be paramount and the inclusion of dogs in activities such as surfing and paragliding needs to be seriously questioned. There is perhaps some justification for strapping a service dog to a parachute, but even there, we should be making some serious decisions about whether we should involve animals in our internecine wars for as the Animals In War Memorial states “They had no choice”.

Owners are notoriously poor at detecting stress in their companion animals. Whilst some dogs may actually enjoy the activity to which they are being subjected, if only because it is social, others undoubtedly do not or may be prone to harm by being, for instance, exposed to a great deal of salt water or indeed, mechanical injury. Just take a look at this dog. If I saw the image as it appears at the top of this post, I would be pretty sure that this is not a happy dog. His eyes are wide and fixed, his commissure is tight and his body is rigid with tension. However, context is all. The dog with al teeth bared and wide open mouth may, after all, just be about to catch a toy, however fierce it looks. …and the context – oh yes, this poor dog has just been strapped to a man who has jumped out of a plane and is now plummeting to earth without any opportunity to do otherwise. I can promise that I for one would look far less sanguine under the same circumstances. There are some advantages to possessing a mind that functions mainly in the present.

Dogs are been taken into the skies to satisfy their owners desire for one-upmanship as they post a bragging image on social media too. Many companies offer flights above popular tourist spots, but helicopter tour company FlyNYON not only promote “open door” flights where tourists are encouraged to hang out (literally) and take photographs, they are allowed to subject their dogs to the same danger. the Company’s website has a small notice about their charitable donation to a canine shelter but does not mention anywhere what the policy is on dogs. Maybe that is thanks to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer who has wisely spoken out against this policy and who, along with Senator Robert Menendez, has requested that the Federal Aviation Administration should intervene and prohibit humans and dogs from flying under these circumstances.

There have been four fatal crashes of non-military helicopters in the US so far this year, with one in the Grand Canyon and in New York City resulting in the deaths of ten tourists. At least when humans take to the skies, they can weigh up the likelihood of harm and make their decision, but their dog cannot.

By all means, let us share our lives where appropriate with our dogs, but let us remember that they are dogs, not furry humans and leave them behind if thrill-seeking is the aim.

Just The Ticket for Rover

Plaudits due to dog owner and Go Coach proprietor Austin Blackburn who is participating in Kent’s Follow My Lead campaign which encourages dog owners to explore the Garden of England. Go Coach operates 50 vehicles on 46 routes around Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge. The routes cover dog-friendly castles, country parks and gardens and handlers will receive treats and poo bags as well as not having to pay a fare for their dog.

Go Coach states that it carries up to 5,500 passengers per day. How many can you add with four paws?

This is an excellent campaign which is aimed at increasing tourism, but it is important to remember that not everybody can drive and dog-friendly public transport can mean the difference between making a journey and not going at all.

It is terrific to have some good access news for a change. 3,500 people signed a petition to Transport for Greater Manchester demanding dog-friendly access to the tram system, but TfGM leader Richard Leese said that although he was not opposed to “the principle of the idea”, taking a dog on a tram would be “cruel”, “dangerous” and “not something any sane person would allow.” Of course, all operators are obliged by law to allow assistance dogs to travel and TfGM also allow dogs to be transported if they are being taken to the PDSA in Old Trafford. When they do, no one has brought a prosecution under the AWA 2006 for cruelty, the HSE have not prosecuted anyone for causing danger and no one has been sectioned for daring to travel on a Greater Manchester tram with a dog.

Nottingham trams have an even more convoluted policy. They “graciously” acknowledge their obligation to transport assistance dogs as long as the handler is visually or aurally impaired, but anyone with a different impairment must apply in writing for permission to board with their dog. Everyone else will only be allowed to travel with an “inoffensive” animal, carried in a “suitable container” but only if the tram staff agree. In other words, fine if you have a small dog and you don’t run up against the ignorance or prejudice of the staff.

It behoves dog owners – after all a quarter of the UK population – to continue to put pressure on transport providers and to ensure that when they can travel, their dog is clean, trained appropriately and only settles on the floor.

As you can see from the image here, a calm, sociable dog can even silence a bus load of schoolchildren – and earn the undying thanks of the driver!