Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dogs and babies

Today I heard this sad story third-hand: as a baby is crawling away from Grandma’s dog, who has always been fine with him before, the dog without any warning pounces on the baby and bites him. The baby loses part of an ear and has deep wounds on his face. The dog is euthanized. The parents were there to supervise, but it all happened too fast to prevent. What went wrong?

The first thing I want to say is that at the point that a dog bites a child (or any human) this badly, I agree that the dog must be euthanized. He is not safe. For this reason, it’s really important to figure out how to keep this situation from happening in the first place, for the sake of the baby and the dog.

What was going on in that dog’s head? We can’t know for sure, but it sounds to me as though the dog was treating the baby like prey. He pounced when the baby was moving away from him, and he bit to injure. If he had been trying to play with the baby, he might have bitten hard enough to bruise, but dogs have excellent control of their teeth, and a bite bad enough to remove part of an ear was probably intentional. The fact that the baby was moving away from him at the time is supportive evidence — the sight of something small and helpless, which makes high-pitched noises and moves erratically, running away from him may have triggered him to act.

Do dogs really act like predators around babies, even if they know them? Some dogs, not all. I would be particularly suspicious of dogs with high prey drives — dogs who are obsessive about chasing small animals outside. They may learn to like small animals who are part of the family, like cats, but with dogs like this, I would be very careful with my introductions. In the case of a human infant, I wouldn’t leave the baby on the floor with the dog loose in the same room unless I really, really trusted the dog. I live with four good dogs who get along just fine with cats, but there is only one of them that I would trust with a baby on the floor. The price is just too high if you make a mistake.

How can you prevent such a situation, since the dog gave no warning signs? I was not there, but I can almost guarantee you that the dog did give warning signs; his owner was just not trained to read and understand them. The dog probably did subtle things like stare at the baby a little too long or sniff it a little too aggressively — things that wouldn’t make the average dog owner think twice, but would make the average dog trainer extra cautious.

So what do you do if you’re expecting a baby and you have a dog? Or if you are a grandmother and want your grandchild and your dog to get along? The safest and easiest answer is to not let the dog and child interact until you know you can trust them together. Put them together for short periods of time only, while you are holding the child, and observe the dog closely. Don’t leave them on the floor together until you are confident that the dog will ignore the child and that the dog shows no stress, fear, or predatory behaviors around the child. If you don’t think you can read the dog well enough to tell, hire a dog trainer to evaluate your dog. A dog trainer can help guess what problems your dog might have around a child, tell you specific signs to look for, be a resource to ask questions, give you tips on how to manage them together. To find a certified dog trainer in your area, search on the Association of Pet Dog Trainers site.

Dogs and kids can get along great, if they are introduced carefully, and when the kid is old enough. But the consequences of a bad relationship between the two are so serious that it is very important to take those introductions seriously, and to make sure you’re seeing things from your dog’s point of view before you assume everything’s okay.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The cat in the tree

The skinny little tree was only about 30 feet tall and growing in the middle of a swamp. Recent flooding had surrounded it with water several feet deep. And yet somehow an orange cat had managed to climb it. He was perched precariously: when I first saw him, he was jammed into the fork of two branches, and his every movement made the little tree bend. I was riding with an animal rescue service, and we had been called out to get the cat out of the tree. It was supposed to be a simple job of using climbing gear to get up the tree; the rescue driver was trained to do jobs like this. But this tree was never going to bear her weight. It could barely hold the cat. Even getting to the tree was going to involve wading through waist-deep water in the chilly November weather.

The cat was glad to see us. He made eye contact and meowed, clearly asking for help. But it was not immediately clear how to help him. We talked about our options, and eventually decided that we were going to have to call back to the shelter for assistance. The rescue driver called her boss, but initially failed to convince him that she couldn’t just climb the tree. She eventually had to photograph the situation on her phone and send him that as proof that the tree couldn’t support a ladder, and that trying would just knock the cat off so that he would fall 30 feet into the cold water.

As we watched and talked about what to do, took photos and made phone calls, the cat eventually stopped talking to us. I think he gave up on us. A few minutes later, he decided to change positions. I think his legs were getting tired of holding him up. After all, we had no idea how long he had been up there; a good samaritan had phoned about him about an hour previously, but the road we were standing on was small and rarely used, so he could have been there unnoticed for hours. I also think he was trying to assess his situation, see if he could take matters into his own hands and find his own way down, since we were clearly useless.

As he moved around on the little tree, it bent terrifyingly. Unable to help ourselves, the rescue driver and I yelled “No, stay still!” up at the cat. This had about as much effect as you’d expect. But he managed not to fall. Over the next thirty minutes, waiting for help to arrive, we watched as he periodically moved around and tried to find a way down. We became worried enough about him that the driver put on her dry-suit and made her way down to the water so that she could fish him out if he fell.

Finally, as the light was failing, our help arrived, in the form of the driver’s boss who had driven down from Boston. Now things started to move quickly. As the cat watched with trepidation, the driver got into the water (in her dry-suit) with a big net; I hovered with another big net; and the driver’s boss attached ropes to the little tree. He pulled, and the tree bent towards the roadway where we stood. The cat braced himself, then, when he was only about ten feet off the ground, jumped. I swung with the net and missed. We watched as the cat ran at top speed away from us down the long road and disappeared into the night.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Links post

I haven’t been reading many blogs lately, so these link recommendations are pretty old. Still delicious, though.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How to spay a cat fast

Yesterday I spent the day on a spay/neuter trailer. The shelter which owns the trailer sends it out to low-income areas to spay and neuter a large number of cats and dogs at low cost. Yesterday was a slow day; we spayed and neutered sixteen cats. Well, the vet spayed seven and neutered three; I spayed one and neutered three. Meanwhile, she explained high volume spay/neuter techniques to me.

The key to high volume spay/neuter is, obviously, speed. She can spay a cat in seven minutes. It takes me about thirty; a general practitioner who has more experience than I do, but isn’t as obsessed with speed, might take ten or twelve. This is what I learned:

  • Keep your surgical field (the animal!) clear. Take the time to replace your instruments on your instrument tray when you are not using them, so that you have less visual clutter.
  • Always know where each surgical instrument belongs. Don’t leave them in a pile or even a random row on your tray. Have an order for them — any order, so long as you are familiar with it and can reach for a particular instrument and know right where it will be.
  •  Don’t waste movements. If you’re reaching to the right to grab a new instrument, don’t twist all the way over to face the tray; just reach your right hand over.
  • Don’t get tangled up in your instruments. Be willing to take a second to switch hands if you have yourself in an awkward position.
  • As you’re working on one step, have your next step in your mind. What instrument will you be reaching for next?
  • Relax. Stand up straight. Breathe, breathe, breathe.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Working with Sadie

Sadie was a rambunctious young shelter dog whom I had been assigned to exercise and train. We were working in an auditorium, the best space the shelter had for exercising dogs indoors. Like most of the dogs I worked with in there, Sadie had some trouble with the smooth floors; every time she ran to catch a ball she would slide and slam into the wall. Because she was basically an oversized puppy, this didn’t faze her. We were having a great time, working on her retrieving skills, practicing “drop it” (at that point, just a swap of the ball for some treats).

Then Sadie saw some dogs playing outside through the big glass doors on one side of the auditorium. Sadie was already diagnosed as dog aggressive, which was part of why she was inside playing alone with me. The mood of the session changed immediately. Sadie ran at the glass doors, barking and racing back and forth. I tried to interpose my body between her and the doors, to back her up and get her attention back on me, but it was like I wasn’t there. I wanted to put her leash on to back her away, but I was worried that grabbing her collar would cause her to turn and bite me.

I made Sadie’s leash into a loop and lassoed her with it, then backed her away from the glass doors. She still wasn’t focusing on me, but neither was she turning to bite me as we backed to the far end of the room, where I sat down on a low stage and kept her on leash. She had her back to me, focusing on the doors. She couldn’t see the dogs any more, but she could hear their deep hound barks, and she really wanted to get at them.

Sadie had worked with a clicker already, so I pulled out my clicker and started to click her for any movement away from the door. Step back towards me: click, handful of treats. Quick look over her shoulder when I made kissing noises at her: click, handful of treats. I kept up a very high rate of reinforcement to keep her interest, so she was essentially being fed a steady stream of pieces of hot dog. Gradually her body language changed, so that she was not arrow-straight pointing at the door. She became looser, more relaxed. She turned towards me, looked at me (treat, treat, treat). And then finally she was lying down next to me, leaning into me, enjoying having her sides rubbed. When the dogs barked, she looked over towards the doors briefly, then back at me. She was with me again.