I have a friend, Nelson, whose son has osteogenesis imperfects – you may know it by its more common name, brittle bone disease. Without a lot of adaptive methods, Dylan would be largely unable to participate in most of the activities that kids his age (Dylan is 10) enjoy. When the class goes on a ski trip, for instance, Dylan can go down the hill with the rest of them, but only when he is fully buckled into a special sort of sled that keeps him from getting knocked about. The kids at his school had to be educated about Dylan’s condition so they wouldn’t play too rough with him at recess. And at school dances, Dylan is better off just slow-dancing, because rocking it out could cause him to break a bone. A few months ago, he even cracked several ribs just by coughing.
But here’s the thing. Nelson is determined that Dylan is going to have, as near as possible, a normal life. Dylan is pretty smart, and they’re already shopping around for universities – Dylan wants to be a lawyer. Nelson also hopes that one day Dylan will marry, and if the genetic testing comes out the way they hope, may even provide him with grandchildren. Sure, Dylan has special needs. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t fully participate in everything life has to offer. Nelson is Dylan’s advocate. When people say “No, he can’t,” Nelson says “Yes, he can.”
Of course it wouldn’t be realistic to think that Dylan doesn’t need an enhanced level of protection. He does. He has special needs, so Nelson advocates for him.
Talking with Nelson kind of got me thinking about how we relate to our dogs. In some ways, we do the same things that Nelson does – we watch vigilantly, make sure our dogs don’t run into traffic, end up in fights with other dogs, eat things that are bad for them, and so on. But I think that’s just good common sense. Advocating for your dog actually goes a bit further. To advocate for your dog, you have to be like Nelson is with Dylan – you can’t just make sure he’s protected from physical harm or emotional trauma – you also have to be proactive.
Advocacy means promoting or supporting the interests of someone else – in this case, your dog. It means placing your dog’s physical and emotional needs above your own, protecting him from physical and emotional harm from other people, and other dogs. It means that sometimes, you are going to have to speak up, because your dog can’t speak for himself. And finally, it means letting your dog know that you will never willingly put him into a situation that he can’t handle.
So, what do you need to know in order to be an advocate for your dog? Basically, it boils down to seven essentials.
If you know how your dog communicates, with both his voice and body language, you’ll be better equipped to protect him. Your dog sends out signals all the time, and if you know how to identify those signals, you’ll know what’s stressing him. When you’re out with your dog, look at the neighborhood and be alert to potential stressors. Is there a rabbit over there? A snake? Funny-looking bugs? A potentially obnoxious drunk guy? They might not bother you much, but they could be very perturbing to your dog. If you spot them before he does, you can lead him gently away from the potential stressor. So, just turn around, take a different route, and try to find other interesting things to look at – maybe that pretty flowerbed, or those rose bushes? The lamp post that has all kinds of interesting pee mail on it?
The idea here is for you to filter out any potential bad experiences, and replace them with good ones. You’ll know when your dog is agitated, so take a look at your surroundings, try to determine what is causing the agitation, and then move away from it.
Make sure, too, that your dog isn’t over-stimulated. A walk with your dog can be something like going out to the circus or county fair with a small child. The kids is fine with buskers and jugglers and loud rides, but then all of a sudden you see her cringe – there’s a clown over there! It’s sensory overload much of the time, and it can happen to your dog, too. Dogs react quickly to any stimulus, and that means that they can overreact quickly as well.
Most of the time, since our dogs seem so happy generally, we don’t recognize the signs of stress. You know yourself how stress works – the alarm clock didn’t go off in time, so you didn’t get your morning coffee, and then you ended up stuck in traffic, and when you got to the office the boss snarked off at you about something you did yesterday that he thought you could have done better. Then you struggle to catch up on today’s work while fixing what went wrong yesterday, so you end up spending extra time at the office. Then, when you get home, you discover that your significant other has forgotten that it’s his turn to cook, and all you have left in the fridge is a pint of yogurt that’s well past its “best before” date and two cans of Coors. You lose it, and with good reason.
Now, I’m not saying that your dog has the same stressors that you have, but if you think that your dog doesn’t feel stress, you’re mistaken. What can you do about it?
Well, you might not know what’s stressing your dog, but watch his body language. Is he hunching, slinking, or just putting his head down on his paws and looking sad? It’s your job, as your dog’s advocate, to try to determine the cause of the stress and act upon it. This might sound hard at first, but as you get to understand your dog’s body language, you’ll soon find yourself in tune to what’s causing the stress. Here are some things to look for, and ways to help your dog feel more comfortable:
If your dog displays body language that suggests he is stressed or frightened, and you can’t identify the cause, it could be time to call in an animal behavior specialist. There’s no shame in it. You are just advocating for your dog. So, now that you know the basics, let’s talk about specific situations in which you will advocate for your dog.
It pretty much goes without saying that no dog should ever have to be afraid in his own home. In this case, advocacy means that you should never feel bad about telling friends and relatives, “No, you cannot bring your child to visit in my home, because my dog does not like children,” or “No, you cannot bring your cat with you when you come to visit me because my dog hates cats and will probably kill Fluffy.” Your house, your dog, your rules.
Of course, by the same token, you shouldn’t inflict your dog on others. You don’t want Fluffy in your home, so don’t take your dog to Fluffy’s home. You are advocating for your dog, not forcing him on other people.
Advocating for your dog at home can also sometimes mean making difficult decisions. Of course you want all your pets to live happily together, but sometimes you could end up with a bad mix. This often happens when people fall into the “but he really needs a home” trap. You end up bringing home an animal (another dog, or a cat, perhaps) knowing full well that it is not likely to work out. Then, no matter how much you work to keep them apart from one another, you know that sooner or later someone will end up being killed. Then you have to decide which pet you are going to be an advocate for. And simply stated, if you have brought another animal into your home, and you already have a dog, then the newcomer should probably be the one that is re-homed.
What this means too, is that if you are of a mindset to foster, consider it carefully before you bring a foster dog into your home. Fostering is great and noble, but your main responsibility is to ensure the safety and happiness of the dog that you already have. If fostering other animals stresses your dog, find another way to satisfy your altruism. Donate money to your local animal shelter, or offer to walk shelter dogs in your spare time – don’t foster. It’s not fair to stress your dog that way. And in fact, many family dogs can develop huge stress issues when there is a parade of fostered dogs coming and going out of the house. You are your dog’s advocate, so think very carefully before you make the decision to foster.
Your dog also should not have to worry about being plagued by other humans. So, teach your kids to be considerate of your dog. In Are You Ready For a Dog? I talked about the fact that not all kids are suited to be around dogs. So if you’re not fully confident that your kids can be trusted to be as respectful of the dog as you are, then you’re going to have to supervise them. If you honestly need to be reminded of this, than get a t-shirt made up with the slogan “I advocate for my dog, so I control my sprog.” Wear it, and look in the mirror regularly.
Who doesn’t love a parade? The problem is, though, that a lot of the time dogs are not all that comfortable at public events where things are unfamiliar. One time, I made the mistake of taking Janice and Leroy to a Fourth of July parade. I thought it would be fun, stupid me. Anyway, Leroy was just fine, happy as a clam (although I’ve often wondered how anyone really knows that clams are happy), standing there at roadside with his ears on full alert and a big, goofy smile on his face as the parade passed, but poor Janice totally lost it when the bagpipers started up. Can’t say I blame her – I don’t like bagpipes either. Thanks to Janice, Leroy missed the rest of the parade. Oh, well.
The other thing is fireworks. I don’t know what kind of idiot takes their dogs to fireworks displays. You know, you can pretty much count on it after the fourth – you’ll see a ton of ads online and in your local paper saying “Dog ran away during fireworks.” Yup, dog ran away because stupid owner didn’t know that any sensible dog is going to be terrified by loud sounds. I’m not sure if this is actual advocacy or simple protection, but whatever – don’t take your dog to the fireworks! And for that matter, if your dog is scared at any event, just leave.
Of course I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take your dog out to enjoy fun and festivities. He might actually love seeing your neighbor’s kid in the marching band – kind of like, “Oh, look, there’s my friend!” But if anything frightens him, remember that you are his friend, his protector, and his advocate, and get him the hell out of there.
If you’re a regular reader of my posts, you know that I have a vet that I would happily recommend to anyone. I simply can’t say enough good things about Stephen, because he is amazing when it comes to the way that he relates to dogs, and Janice and Leroy love him as much as I do. Vet visits for my two aren’t stressful at all – they love Stephen as much as I do, and they love the clinic staff as well. Visits to the vet aren’t at all stressful for Janice and Leroy; they just figure that they’re going on a fun visit to see their beloved friends.
Now, I remember another vet visit, entirely too vividly. Stephen was on vacation, and Leroy had developed an abscess under his throat. Stephen not being available, I had to settle for Dr. Lee, and I have to say, Leroy and I both hated her, practically on sight. First off, she diagnosed an infection, and told me that Leroy would have to be on oral antibiotics that were going to cost me an arm, a leg, and a lien on my first-born (assuming that I ever choose to sprog). I pointed out to Dr. Lee that Stephen most of the time just says “You know what to do, take him home and inject him with Pen-Pro.” Dr. Lee suggested that Leroy might “not like jabbies.” Even though I’ve been doing “jabbies” on my dogs forever, and I know that injectable antibiotics are far more effective than oral.
Was it just my ego coming into play, though? No, it wasn’t. I can do injections, and injectable antibiotics are better, but that wasn’t the main thing. The main thing was that when she approached Leroy, she didn’t handle him gently. At the first sign that he might not want to cooperate, she insisted that we muzzle him. I refused. Leroy didn’t need to be muzzled; he needed to be handled properly! I advocated for my dog, and I would do it again.
If your dog is over his stress limit at the vet, chances are you don’t have the right vet. Your dog should love the vet. If he doesn’t, there’s probably a very good reason, and you need to advocate for him.
You probably think of this phrase in conjunction with your kids, not your dog. But your dog has to feel safe at school, too. If you’re taking him to doggie daycare, or obedience classes, he’s going to have to learn how to react to situations that don’t involve you. So make sure that he’s in a good class, with trainers and handlers who know how to conduct activities that are fun, trust-building and bond-enriching. A good teacher will make sure that the dog learns by means of kindness, not punishment. Don’t be afraid to interview your dog’s trainer, and ask questions about the methods they plan to use. Then, if something sounds off, bail and look elsewhere. As your dog’s advocate, you have his best interests in mind. A good trainer will be more than willing to answer questions and address your concerns, and if you have the slightest qualms, don’t hesitate to say “Thanks, but I think I’ll take a pass.”
Often, dog owners will choose workshops over obedience training or daycare, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Workshops aren’t long-term – usually they only last a day or two – and they are intensive. What this means is that often, a dog can feel overwhelmed. Some dogs adjust quite well, but others may not be able to adjust at all. Really, it all depends on your dog’s individual personality.
If you find that your dog is stressed in workshops, then you have to make a decision as his advocate. Should you persevere, or pack up and try something else? In this case, you’re going to have to observe your dog carefully. Does it look as though his stress level is increasing? Or is he coming around? Sometimes, all you need to do is take your dog home, let him decompress, and then try again. In other instances, though, a workshop simply may not work. Again, you know your dog, and you know what you have to do for him, so be his advocate.
These are seven ways that you can be your dog’s advocate. And if you’re not ready to advocate for your dog for the 9-15 years (usually) that you will have him, then don’t bring that puppy home in the first place. If you can’t speak for your dog, if you can’t ensure his well-being, then leave him to be adopted by someone who can.
If you are willing to advocate for your dog, though, don’t do it by degrees. Think about this – he would protect you with his life, to the ends of the earth and beyond. You need to do the same for him. So use your voice. Speak out. If anyone, be it the organizer of a local parade, well-meaning friends or relatives, the neighborhood kids, or even your veterinarian, does anything to prevent your dog from participating fully in all the activities he should love, and enjoy in good health, then speak up. You are your dog’s advocate, and it is your job.