DOG SAFETY OVERVIEW
– Evaluate your dog’s environment and make any necessary changes to minimize the risks to his health and safety.
– When in public, protect your dog like a mother hen from foolish and malicious humans and dangerous dogs.
– Acquire one or more pet first aid kits and educate yourself through books, courses, and/or videos about providing first aid to your dog.
One of our primary responsibilities as caretakers of our canine companions is to keep them safe. There seems to be an endless host of hazards just waiting to take advantage of a breach in our defenses and attack our unsuspecting pals. If you’ve owned dogs for any length of time, you’ve probably encountered your share of those hazards and vowed not to make the same mistakes again.
It’s easy to become paranoid and want to shroud your four-legged family members in bubble wrap to protect them. But how much protection is reasonable? How do you keep your dog safe and still let him enjoy his life as a dog?
Accidents happen when you least expect them. That’s why they are called accidents. Your job as a responsible dog owner is to minimize the possibility of accidental trauma and tragedy without minimizing the quality of life that you share with your dog. We’re here to make your job easier, by spelling out some of the common dangers and giving you some tips for avoiding them. You might as well learn from others’ past mistakes as well as your own! Let’s look at some sensible safety suggestions that you can implement to maximize your dog’s potential for a long and healthy life.
Dog Collars That Kill
The Problem: We need a place to attach our dogs’ ID tags and leash. The collar – with variations such as the harness and head halter, are the best options we humans have been able to invent. They are not without their drawbacks, however. Thousands of dogs have been killed by their collars – including one of my own, and another personal near-miss.
The once-ubiquitous choke chain – a training collar that is now losing favor, thank goodness – has a fair share of dog fatalities to its credit. For decades, well-meaning but uneducated dog owners have left these collars on their dogs and blithely gone off to work. I did this myself when I was young and dumb, joining the long list of grieving owners who returned home to find that their dogs had hung themselves on this unforgiving, aptly named collar. I was devastated by my thoughtless contribution to the death of my lovely young St. Bernard, Bear.
When used as a training tool rather than an everyday collar, the choke chain can still injure and kill. From time to time, a news story crosses the wires describing how an overzealous trainer has jerked on a choke chain and killed a training subject by yanking hard enough to crush the dog’s trachea. They can also be deadly in play. Twenty years ago, while my dog, Keli, was playing with her sister, Darby (who was owned by a friend), after a training class, Keli got her lower jaw through Darby’s collar. Darby spun around, trapping Keli’s jaw and strangling herself. I managed to lift Keli and spin her in the opposite direction, narrowly averting the tragedy.
However, even standard buckle and snap collars can kill. There are numerous reports of dogs strangling themselves in their collars when snagged, or when, like Keli and Darby, they get caught in the jaws of a playmate.
Identification tags, so vital for an escaped dog’s safe return to his owner, have also caused collar tragedies. We’ve heard of numerous dogs whose ID tags slipped through the grate of a floor heating or air conditioning duct, pinning the dog to the floor and causing him to panic. In other cases, dogs who sleep or rest on outdoor decks have gotten their ID tags caught between the spaces between the deck boards.
Unfortunately, collars with some sort of ID attached still provide the best odds that your dog will be returned to you if he somehow escapes your supervision. Head halters, of course, cannot be left on all the time, and body harnesses can chafe.
Solutions: Some dog owners choose to remove collars whenever they are not home with their dogs, to avoid any possibility of strangling. Unfortunately, that leaves the dog without a visible ID tag, should he escape the bounds of his house or yard.
PetSafe Products offers another solution: the KeepSafe Breakaway collar. This collar features a reusable safety buckle that will pop open when a sufficient amount of pressure is applied. The breaking strength of the buckle is geared to the size of the collar, so even the weight of a small dog is sufficient to pop the buckle of the small-sized collars. The collar also has an override feature so it can be safely used to walk the dog on a leash.
We put the KeepSafe collar on two of our dogs (Dubhy, our Scottie, and Tucker, our 75-pound cattle dog mix) when the two pals started engaging in collar-grab games. We found Dubhy’s collar on the floor numerous times, and on one occasion trapped by his tags in one of the heater grates in the floor. I shudder to think what might have happened on any one of those occasions had he been wearing a regular collar.
Dog Safety at Home
The Problem: There are any number of dangers for your dogs at home, including things they can eat, things they can chew, things they can get caught in, and things that can fall on them. Hazards outside are even greater, even in a fenced yard, including malicious mischief, theft, poisoning, attack from predators, and accidental escape or release.
Young puppies are at greatest risk, since they explore the world with their mouths, and because they are smaller and more vulnerable than adult dogs. Puppies chew cords and get electrocuted. They get into garbage and household cleaners. They are more likely to ingest multiple pieces of chew toys as well as non-edible objects and become impacted, requiring emergency surgery.
Adult dogs are not immune, however. Nuisance barkers often get released from their yards, shot or poisoned. Dogs escape their yards by jumping over, digging under, or slipping through the fence when the pool cleaner leaves the gate open. They also get stolen for resale, breeding, and lost pet scams.
Solutions: First and foremost, keep your dogs indoors when you are not home to protect them. If they must be left outside, make sure your fence is solid and secure. Also make sure your dogs are not disturbing the neighbors, at risk of escaping, or able to fall into the hot tub or swimming pool. Finally, padlock the gates religiously.
Indoors, a puppy should be crated, or kept in an ex-pen or puppy-proofed room during your absence. Any new dogs in our home are crated when we are not there until they are at least a year old, at which time we give them gradually increasing periods of freedom as they demonstrate their maturity and ability to handle house-freedom privileges.
In addition, baby-proof latches on cupboard doors, covered garbage cans, and similar management tools can protect hazardous materials from pooches who have a penchant for snooping where they ought not.
Riding in Cars
The Problem: Loose dogs in cars can cause accidents by getting under the driver’s feet, blocking the driver’s view, or simply by causing a distraction that diverts the driver’s attention from the road. Even a well-behaved dog can become a deadly projectile if the driver has to slam on the brakes suddenly, or if an accident does happen. And if a free-flying dog manages to survive the accident, he may escape the damaged vehicle and become lost in strange territory, or get hit by a car in traffic and be injured or worse, as happened to my brother’s Australian Shepherd years ago when she jumped through the shattered windshield of his car and was killed by a passing truck.
Of course, another hazard presented by taking your dog with you in the car is heat stroke. It does not have to be very warm outside for the sun to superheat your car and kill your dog if you are foolish enough to leave him unattended – but we are confident that WDJ readers are smarter than that! By the same token, we’re sure we don’t have to warn you about the hazards of hauling your dog in the back of an open pick-up truck.
Solutions: Canine seat belts and crates are available just about everywhere dog products are sold. One of our favorite seat belts, intended for use with your dog’s regular harness, is the Doggie Catcher, produced and sold by Smiling Dog Enterprises (www.doggiecatcher.com, 800-741-3480). In a review of seat belts in our May 2001 issue, it was our top choice among seat belts by virtue of its simplicity and ease of use. Since our review, this product was modified with a smaller flap to cover the smaller seat belt release button in newer model cars.
If you crate your dog in your car, remember that you need to secure the crate in some safe fashion as well. In case of an accident, your dog could be subjected to a very unpleasant ride as the crate bounces around the car, or worse, the crate itself can become a deadly projectile with the dog in it!
Out in Public
The Problem: We frequently harp on the importance of getting your dog out in public for ongoing socialization. When you do, you will need to guard him like a mother hen; you can’t count on people to be dog-savvy, and you never know when you might encounter a less-than-friendly dog. Big and small, young and old, even well-intentioned humans can do some very foolish things around dogs. Feeding chocolate, cooked chicken bones, alcohol or drugs; tossing a tennis ball off a cliff; or approaching and hugging a dog who clearly prefers not to be hugged are just a few of the “stupid human tricks” that come to mind.
Remember, it is one of your primary responsibilities as caretaker of your canine companion to keep him safe. That means never leaving him where he could be vulnerable to unsafe acts by foolish or malicious humans, or nasty dogs.
Solutions: I’m afraid we don’t have any magic products to offer that will protect your dog from human hazards. Your constant vigilance and direct supervision are your most useful safety tools.
Never leave your best friend tied up outside the grocery store or exposed in the back of your pickup truck while you run in to do your shopping. There’s no telling who might do what to him while you are thumping the melons. Even leaving him in the car with the windows cracked open for ventilation risks someone sticking their hand through the crack and being bitten, or unlocking the door and releasing or stealing your furry pal. Leave him home if you run errands where he can’t accompany you into the store.
At social events, always keep your eye on your dog and be prepared to step in and rescue him if he needs help. If your dog appears anxious about an approaching person, stop the interaction. Gently but firmly turn away the toddler who wants to hug him, and stand your ground with the person who insists, “It’s okay, dogs love me!” as your dog stiffens and tries to retreat behind your legs. Your dog will be blamed for any bites that occur, regardless of the provocation.
As for those nasty dogs, it’s a good idea to carry protection. Direct Stop, available from PetSafe, is a citronella spray in a handy, small pressurized can. Direct Stop can startle and ward off a stray dog exhibiting malicious intent. Brush up on all your options for keeping your dog safe from other canines, and be ready to intervene if necessary (see “How to Safely Break Up a Dogfight,” December 2002).
The Problem: We love to recreate with our dogs, and that’s a very good thing. In appropriate circumstances, we can take our dogs hiking, biking, horseback riding, and boating, to mention a few.
Just as we take calculated risks for ourselves when we engage in our favorite sports, so we expose our dogs to some of those same risks. Athletic activity can subject a dog to paw wear and tear, strains and sprains, overheating, dehydration, and accidents. Long-term, high-impact sports such as Frisbee-catching and Flyball can lead to eventual arthritis. That doesn’t mean we don’t share our outdoor activities with our dogs, but we do need to minimize the risks.
Solutions: Evaluate the risks of each activity you want to share with your dog and decide if they are reasonable. Then figure out how you can reduce the risks to make them even more acceptable.
For example, be sure to carry plenty of water for your dog as well as yourself when you go hiking or biking together (see “B.Y.O.W” in the June 2002 issue for a review of leak-proof dog water bottles). If you hike or bike in rough, rocky areas or on hot pavement or sand, consider getting him accustomed to wearing boots to protect his pads (see “Pooch in Boots,” January 2001).
If you want to go riding with him, take the time to teach him to stay out from under equine hooves. For boating activities, insist that he wear a canine flotation device. As with humans, even a strong doggie paddler can get into trouble in fast or deep water, and if your craft should go down in open water, he may need a life jacket to help him stay afloat until he can reach land – or regain consciousness. See WDJ’s 2016 review of canine flotation devices here.
Regardless of our best efforts, stuff happens. Tornados, hurricanes, floods, and fires can cause major injuries. Falls can break bones. Dogfights occur. Accidents happen when you least expect them – that’s why they call them accidents. In spite of all your bubble wrap, chances are there will come a time in your dog’s life when you are called upon to deal with an emergency. The better prepared you are, the better the outcome is likely to be.
Solutions: Get at least two pet first aid kits – one for your home and one for your car. If you take your dog hiking, get a third, smaller one, that he can carry in his backpack. Stock them with items appropriate to canine first aid. We like the commercial pet first-aid kits available from Creative Pet Products.
Your personal library should also include a good book on pet first aid, such as the one offered by the American Red Cross, Pet First Aid, available through your local Red Cross Chapter. The Red Cross also offers a course on Pet First Aid that teaches pet owners how to respond to a wide range of animal emergencies, from dressing a wound, performing CPR, to preparing pets for natural disasters. Call your local Red Cross chapter or go to redcross.org to find the list of course locations. If the class is not offered in your area, you can order The Pet First Aid for Dogs and Cats video from the American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles. You don’t have to be a Boy Scout to be prepared.
Pat Miller, WDJ’s Training Editor, is also a freelance author and Certified Pet Dog Trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is the president of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and published her first book, The Power of Positive Dog Training, in 2002.