21 October 2011

Pleeeeease don't leave me!

It's normal for our dogs to want to be close to us and know where we are.  They depend on us for everything, not just food, water and shelter, but company too.  Domestication has seen the dog's natural social partner change from canine to human, and so it's no wonder that most dogs experience some degree of agitation and confusion when we leave them home alone.   

For some dogs, separation is truly unbearable and highly distressing.  The underlying emotion responsible for separation-induced behaviour is panic.  Panic is one of the emotions involved in the dog’s social drive. 

Most separation-induced behaviours occur within the first 10 minutes of the owner leaving the house, with general agitation and stress having already been building for some time beforehand. 

It is incorrect to call it ‘separation anxiety’.  Anxiety is a fear-based emotion and has its root in defence drive, not social drive.  The correct term for separation-induced behaviour is ‘separation distress syndrome’ (SDS) and is defined by the presence of two or more of the following behaviours:

  • Excessive attachment (clingy behaviour).
  • Pre-departure restlessness – pacing, over-activity.
  • Aggression towards owner leaving.
  • Vocalisations – agitated barking, howling, whining.
  • Destructive behaviours – barrier frustration (escape behaviour) evident by aggressive scratching and biting directed at doors, windows, etc, also chewing (often items belonging to owner, furniture, anything other than own chew toys), shredding, digging, and self-injurious/self-mutilation behaviour rooted in excessive grooming (biting, chewing paws, etc).
  • Physiological behaviours – hyper-salivation, panting, trembling.
  • House-soiling – peeing and pooping only when owner leaves.
  • Separation-induced anorexia.
  • Psychogenic vomiting.
  • Searching out items of owner’s clothing or belongings.
  • Excessive greeting behaviour.

There are a number of reasons why some dogs develop SDS.  Sensitisation to social isolation or never having any experience of being left are two possible factors.  Shelter dogs may have had a similar problem before their previous owners gave them up, or maybe the actual experience of abandonment predisposes some dogs to quickly form dependent attachments to their new owners.  Certainly, statistics show that dogs with SDS are 3 times more likely to have come from an animal shelter than are dogs with other behaviour problems.  They are also more likely to be female, of mixed breed, and have been a stray.

Genetic predisposition and temperament type may also be involved with some dogs. 
C-type dogs may display sustained distress as a result of loss and frustration, tending towards barking persistently and scratching aggressively at doors.  S-type dogs rarely show any distress upon separation, but if agitation is evident, these dogs can be easily distracted and quickly comforted with a food-filled toy.  M-type dogs are often highly distressed at separation.  P-types tend to be more restrained in their distress response but may become progressively distressed by longer separation.  S- and C-types tend to bark more than whine, whereas P- and M-types whine more than they bark.  S- and C-types appear to respond better to food, whereas P- and M-types appear to derive more comfort from owner-scented clothing. 

Some dogs have a greater dependency on people and therefore have a tendency to limit their own success by relying only on the presence of people in order to feel secure.  In this respect, failure by these dogs to remain with the people on whom they rely for their survival may play a big part in the development of SDS, so prone or predisposed dogs need to be able to rely on other, predictable events in order to feel secure and confident.  Such dogs really need routine and structure in order to feel secure, and confidence-building leadership goes a long way towards allowing a naturally dependent dog to feel successful and therefore able to rely on itself when the owner is absent.

SDS has nothing to do with a dog thinking or feeling that it needs to keep the pack together because its owner is a ‘weak leader’ and obviously not up to the job, or because it thinks its owner is a ‘puppy’ that needs to be kept close.  Prone, pre-disposed or dependent dogs simply cannot cope with being abandoned because their entire coping strategy is built around remaining close to the people who provide for them.  Certainly these dogs need leadership – not the sort of pseudo-leadership that involves the owner pretending to be some kind of uninterested and aloof, two-legged, person-shaped ‘pack leader’ – but leadership that allows a sense of independence and security to develop, with which comes a more confident and relaxed attitude towards separation and being alone.

It’s important to identify whether behaviours are separation-induced or opportunistic.  Videoing the dog is an essential first step, to see the extent and intensity of the behaviours and when they occur.  As dogs with SDS will show a combination of behaviours, if the main behaviour is barking, establish whether it is prolonged or sporadic.  If prolonged, is it accompanied by pacing, whining, staring at the front door, is it rhythmic (compulsive)  – if so, it’s SDS.  If it’s sporadic with no other noticeable behaviours and on the whole the dog seems able to settle, the barking is much more likely to be in response to noises, either from neighbours or from outside activity, so not separation-related. 

If behaviours are opportunistic in nature as opposed to being separation-induced, so if dog seems relaxed when the owner leaves and once gone, chooses to have some destructive fun ripping up a sofa cushion or going on a fridge or bin raid, or if the behaviours happen well after the owner has left the house or only happen if the dog is left for a second time in the same day, increasing the dog’s daily exercise (physical and psychological), modifying the home environment to reduce the likelihood of opportunistic and destructive behaviours from happening, providing activity toys, using taste aversion if necessary and teaching ‘leave’, should work to dramatically decrease or even cease these behaviours.

If a dog is suffering with SDS, I use the following plan on which to base its behaviour therapy:  



  • Alternative activities.  These should provide acceptable outlets for behaviour as well as forming a positive association with the owner’s departure – food dispenser toys such as Kongs and Dog Pyramids, chew toys, etc.  Association must first be made in a ‘safe place’, e.g. dog’s bed, while the owner is present, to create a rewarding and successful association with the activity.  Many dogs with SDS won’t eat while the owner is absent, so for these dogs to engage with food when alone, the activity has to hold some previously conditioned, positive association.  Giving a dog a frozen stuffed Kong without first doing the groundwork will not work. 
  • Leadership.  NILIF (Nothing In Life Is Free), reward-based training, ‘can do’ behaviours, bringing all attention, affection and interaction under owner guidance so that the dog learns to make successful, predictable choices that have a positive, reliable outcome.  Leadership builds self-confidence and therefore independence.
  • Owner odour.  Once-worn item of clothing (e.g. t-shirt), slept on blanket/towel, as a ‘security blanket’.  Dogs with P- and M-type temperaments respond particularly well to this.
  • Nutrition.  Casein, oleic acid, serotonin, chewing, omega 3.  See my Mood Food article for further information.
  • Exercise.  Daily aerobic exercise to release energy, daily moderate exercise to enhance brain chemistry.  Providing exercise before leaving a dog home alone also provides opportunity for the dog to toilet.

  • Training.  Graduated departures, new leaving routine/ritual that creates a positive association with the owner’s departure, ‘stay’ training (very important, dog learns that ‘stay’ means ‘if I stay here my owner will return’).
  • Identify triggers.  Keys, clothes, bags, shoes, rituals, sounds, etc, can all be triggers for separation-induced behaviour and must be identified and changed and/or desensitised/counter-conditioned.
  • Mask outside noises.  Leave a radio/CD on moderate volume to mask outside noises that may trigger nervous barking.  This will also provide some background noise in an otherwise silent environment – homes are never really silent when we are in them and some dogs may well associate some level of noise with us being present.
  • Environmental modification.  Remove valuables, clear worktops, bolt cupboards, use taste aversion on furniture, doors, etc (this has to be previously primed), provide comfort, limit space (e.g. stair gates, crate), turn phone ringer off, draw curtains/blinds, etc.  As with using food, if using a crate to confine a dog, a positive association with confinement and remaining in the crate has to made before the dog is left alone.  If the groundwork is not put into confinement training, an even bigger problem can be created with the SDS, barrier-frustration-suffering dog trying to break out the crate (as it would doors or windows).  This carries a huge risk of the dog injuring itself in the process.

Even dogs who don’t show full-blown SDS can benefit from some of the elements of the ‘ALONE TIME’ plan.  Many dogs at best only tolerate being alone, and it’s these dogs for whom a sudden change in owner working hours can trigger separation-type behaviour.  It should never be assumed that just because a dog doesn’t bark excessively or rip up the house, it is happy to be left alone, and helping any dog to relax and enjoy being alone is therefore always desirable.  It is quality of life that matters.


Please note that ‘ALONE TIME’ is only an OUTLINE plan for SDS.  If you think that your dog is suffering from SDS, particularly if the behaviours are excessive and injurious, my advice to you is to enlist the help of a reputable dog professional who fully understands the psychology behind separation-induced behaviour and who is equipped with the training knowledge necessary for behaviour therapy to be effective – not someone who thinks that your dog is trying to control your movements by assuming the role of ‘pack leader’ because you haven’t.  Dogs with SDS don’t need us to be 'assertive', ‘pack leaders’ or ‘alphas’, but they do need us to provide leadership and a predictable, reward-based departure routine in order to remove the helplessness from their natural dependency upon us and so rebalance, enhance and strengthen the human-dog bond.

13 October 2011

What's in a wag?

Why do dogs wag their tails has to be one of the most frequently asked behaviour questions.  The short answer is that tail wagging is a form of communication.  I’m sure that most of us think that we are able to recognise and differentiate between a ‘happy wag’ and a ‘nervous wag’, but there’s more to wagging than immediately meets the eye.


A continuation of the dog’s spine that extends beyond the body, the tail is comprised of a highly mobile string of between 6 and 23 bones (caudal vertebrae).

What makes the tail move are the caudal muscles, which lie over the bones of the lower back (lumbar vertebrae and sacrum) and insert into the tail bones exclusively.  These muscles are attached to the tail bones by tendons, and along with musculature associated with the rectum, anus and pelvic diaphragm, are served by 4 to 7 pairs of nerves.  All this makes the tail capable of finely graded movements in all directions and along the entire length of the tail, with the caudal muscles being responsible for making the tail wag.

The caudal muscles are composed of ‘sarcomeres’ (contractile segments into which a fibril of striated muscle is divided).  When the dog’s brain stimulates the spinal nerves, signals from those nerves cause the release and absorption of sodium and potassium in the caudal muscles.  This causes the sarcomeres to slide together, and the vibrations from these sliding contractions travel along the tail, which begins to wag.


Just as our facial expressions indicate how we are feeling, the dog’s response to emotive stimuli is conveyed in the wag of its tail through something called ‘tail bias’, or the degree to which the tail is wagged to the right or to the left.  This asymmetry of tail wagging was highlighted in a study by Giorgio Vallortigara, a neuroscientist at the University of Trieste in Italy, and two veterinarians, Angelo Quaranta and Marcello Siniscalchi, at the University of Bari, also in Italy.  The study, published in the March 2007 edition of ‘Current Biology’, looked at the tail wags of 30 pet dogs in response to four different sets of social stimuli – the dog’s owner, a stranger, a cat, and an aggressive, unfamiliar dog.  What they observed was that the dogs’ tails wagged to a greater degree to the right of their rumps on seeing their owners, the stranger and the cat, and a greater degree to the left when they saw the aggressive dog.  The result was not so much a surprise, but a conformation that like us and many other animals including birds, fish, frogs and insects, dogs have ‘brain asymmetry’ when it comes to emotions, with the muscles in the right side of the tail reflecting a positive emotional state and the muscles in the left side reflecting a negative emotional state.

The brain is comprised of two hemispheres.  The left hemisphere specializes in behaviours involving what the scientists refer to as ‘approach and energy enrichment’.  This means that in humans, the left hemisphere is associated with positive feelings like love, attachment, safety and calm.  The left hemisphere is also associated with certain physiological markers such a slow heart and breathing rate, eating and relaxing.  The left brain hemisphere controls the right side of the body.  Birds generally seek food with their right eye, honeybees learn better when using their right antenna, frogs generally flick their tongues to the right to catch insects, and the muscles of the right side of the human face reflect happiness.  With the tail wag experiment dogs, when shown something that they were attracted to, including a benign, approachable cat, their tails wagged more to the right. 

The right hemisphere deals with behaviours involving ‘withdrawal and energy expenditure’, such as fleeing.  These behaviours are associated with negative feelings like hate, loneliness, danger, and anxiety.  Physiological markers of the right hemisphere include a rapid heart and breathing rate, shutdown of the digestive system and vigilance.  The right brain controls the left side of the body.  Birds generally keep a look out for predators with their left eye, frogs are more likely to jump away if approached on the left, male chameleons display more aggression when looking at another chameleon with their left eye, and the muscles of the left side of the human face reflect sadness.  When shown something that elicited a withdrawal response, the dogs wagged their tails to the left.

Although the dog’s tail is at the body’s midline, the nerves and muscles that control the wag of the tail are not central – the tail has musculature on either side, meaning that the ‘left wag’ muscles are controlled by the dog’s right brain hemisphere, and the ‘right wag’ muscles are controlled by the left brain hemisphere.  The muscles on either side of the tail therefore reflect the registering of emotions like fear and happiness – when a dog feels a positive response towards something or someone, his tail wags more to the right side of his body, and when he feels a negative response, his tail wagging is biased to the left.

This tail wagging asymmetry may also extend to postural asymmetry in the form of lateral flexion of the spine, but because of the way that the tail wagging experiment was carried out, no obvious body asymmetry could be observed, however, Tilly and Beau’s greeting behaviour towards me certainly suggests this, as both flex their bodies to the right in an extension of a right tail wag bias. 

It’s likely that brain asymmetry is also reflected in other areas of canine body language such as scratching, which is a displacement behaviour often engaged in when a dog is under pressure or feels agitated.  Again, my own observations when working with clients’ dogs suggests that pretty much every time a dog engages in this behaviour, it’s the left hind leg that does the scratching, indicating that the dog is experiencing uncomfortable, negative emotions.

Perhaps I need to design my own experiment to explore these other brain asymmetric behaviours!

So this brings me back to what makes a wag happy or nervous – is it tail position?  How much of the tail is wagging?  Wag speed?  While these aspects play a part in determining confidence levels and the intensity of the dog’s energy, primarily it has to do with tail bias – if the dog is happy, its tail will wag more towards the right of its rump, if it is not happy, towards the left.  A low wagging tail, if the bias is towards the right, indicates a submissive but positive state of mind (not nervousness).  And beware the higher wagging tail if the bias is towards the left, because this indicates a less inhibited but negative state of mind, not happiness!


Read about Vallortigara, Quaranta and Siniscalchi's study on 'Asymmetric tail wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli' here.

8 October 2011


Spirulina is pretty amazing stuff.  One of the first life-forms on the planet, this microscopic, blue-green algae has been around for over 3.6 billion years.  During its lifetime, it has survived various climate changes and catastrophic events that have wracked Earth including meteorite bombardments, thousands of years of hurricane force winds, ultra-violet radiation, global glaciation and ice-ages, and major extinction events.  The first photosynthetic life-form, Spirulina turned sunlight into energy and filled the Earth’s atmosphere with the oxygen needed in order for higher life forms to start evolving.   As well as producing life-giving oxygen, the cellular makeup of spirulina contained everything that life needed to grow and evolve.  In a very real sense, we owe our lives to spirulina. 

Humans have been eating Spirulina since prehistory, and today, this tiny aquatic plant is widely regarded as the worlds greatest 'super food' – its long, thin, spiraling threads consisting of up to 70% protein (dry weight), the elements of which consist of 18 types of amino acids, vitamins A, C, E, K, B (1, 2, 3, 6, 12), various minerals, enzymes, anti-oxidants, and phytonutrients including essential fatty acids, polysaccharides, and sulfo-lipids, and chlorophyll and carotenoids, which give Spirulina its dark green colour.  It has green credentials too, producing more protein per acre than any other food source on the planet.  The blue colour in Spirulina comes from phytonutrient called ‘phycocyanin’, which in one study was shown to inhibit cancer-colony formation.  Other studies suggest that Spirulina enhances enzyme activity at cell nucleus level, and helps to repair the copying errors that can occur during DNA synthesis.  It has anti-inflammatory properties and supports the immune system, raising the levels of three cytokines, generating new blood cells, enhancing bone marrow, stem cell and macrophage activity, inhibiting viral replication, stimulating T-helper cell activity, and producing ‘T-memory cells’ that last longer in the bloodstream than T-helper cells and so provide long-term defence against infection.

So what’s all this got to do with dogs I hear you ask?  After all, this is a dog blog, not an algae blog!          

Well, it’s because of Tilly.  Earlier this year, she began to nibble her left fore-claw and eventually, x-rays confirmed that she had osteomyelitis (infection of the bone) in that toe.  Osteomyelitis is a notoriously difficult condition to treat and by all (human) accounts, very painful.  During May, my vet put her on a 4-week course of the antibiotic ‘Antirobe’ (specifically prescribed for osteomyelitis as well as deep-wound and dental infections).  This reduced the nibbling considerably, but once the course was finished, the nibbling increased again to pre-treatment levels.

Amputation of the toe was an option and guaranteed to get rid of the infection, but my vet would do this only if the condition of the toe was seriously affecting Tilly’s quality of life.

Osteomyelitis does not just clear up of its own accord and so in the meantime, the only available conventional treatment option consisted of another long-term course of antibiotics, and pain relief from NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs), but given that long-term (and often short-term) use of NSAIDs can cause serious organ damage, I really did not want go down this route.  

We were stuck between a rock and a hard place and it was incredibly difficult to know what to do for the best.  I would have given the go-ahead for amputation regardless of whether it was ‘seriously affecting her quality of life’ as this appeared to be the inevitable solution anyway, and getting it over with sooner rather than later would save her from suffering unnecessarily.  But how to measure ‘seriously affecting quality of life’?  It was clear that it bothered her a lot – she was chewing and nibbling at the toe at least 3 times an hour during the day and it was waking her (and me) up at night too.   I was beginning to spend a ridiculous amount of time keeping my eye on her to try to prevent her from nibbling, and when my vigilance slipped, sounding like a broken record telling her to leave it alone.  It was both distracting and distressing, for her and for me.  She’s my special girlie who came from a heart-breaking background of abuse and neglect, and it saddened me greatly to know that she was uncomfortable.        

During July and August, it was bothering her more so than ever before.  Every few days I gave the area around the claw a good old clear out of the build up of bits of dead skin and ‘crystalline hard stuff’ (not sure what this was!).   For topical treatment we tried neem oil, but as she loves the taste, it didn’t work as a ‘no-nibble’ and for all its anti-bacterial/fungal/inflammatory claims, it didn’t seem to deliver any improvement to the toe’s condition at all, although it mat well have kept any secondary, external infections at bay.  Similarly, aloe vera gel squeezed directly from a freshly cut leaf gave no obvious improvement.  So then I tried propolis, which is supposed to taste so bad that it is notoriously difficult to get dogs to eat it.  Not Tilly, she loved the taste, but while it didn’t work directly to stop her from nibbling the toe, it did appear to bring a few hours of relative relief from the need to nibble once applied and soaked in.  For it’s anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and bone ‘smoothing’ properties I was also giving her rosehip powder, but as with the topical treatments, this didn’t appear to bring any obvious or lasting improvement.   

Anyway … back to the amazing stuff that is Spirulina.  Earlier in the year and pre-osteomyelitis, we attended an Applied Zoopharmacognosy course where Tilly enthusiastically self-selected Spirulina. 

There was no mention on the course about Spirulina being anything other than highly nutritious, a good immune system supporter, and a very popular selection choice for the majority of dogs regardless of state of health.
So on a hunch, I bought a huge tub of organic Spirulina powder and started by allowing Tilly to take as much as she wanted, which turned out to be just over 4 full teaspoons for the first week, and then gradually, day-by-day she began to take less. 

She’s currently taking about ½ a teaspoon a day, and for the past 3 weeks, NO TOE NIBBLING AT ALL! 

I have since come across this piece of information about Spirulina:  (Spirulina) alleviates any general fluids dyscrasia (abnormal or pathological condition) within the bone tissue or skeletal structure that leads to conditions involving osteomalacia (skeletal deformities), osteomyelitis (infectious pathogenic bone disorders), osteoporosis (brittle bone conditions) or spinal degeneration, and eliminates any form of cachexia (state of malnourishment and general debility) throughout the bone tissue or marrow and skeletal system.”  Interestingly, the same source suggests bee pollen for bone conditions, so it would appear that we were on the right track with topically treating the area with propolis.

So having gone from constant nibbling to no nibbling at all within just a few weeks, it would appear that after 5 months, Tilly’s ‘naughty toe’ has finally healed and we have actually beaten osteomyelitis – not with antibiotics, NSAIDs or amputation, but with a 3.6 billion year old algae.  Truly.  Amazing.

Read more about Spirulina’s physiological action and therapeutic uses here: http://www.alternativescentral.com/phf12a-spirulina.htm 

Learn more about Applied Zoopharmacognosy here: http://www.rose-therapy.co.uk/id38.html 

Please note that osteomyelitis is an acute or chronic infection of the bone, and although Spirulina appears to have successfully treated the condition in Tilly’s toe, this article is not meant to be taken as a substitute for conventional veterinary advice and treatment.  Please also note that Spirulina is not the same blue-green algae that occasionally blooms in ponds and lakes in the UK.  This blue-green algae, called Cyanobacteria, is poisonous and should never be eaten.  Spirulina on the other hand carries no known contraindications or toxicity.     

4 October 2011

Thundershirts are go!

Remember remember the 5th of November ... it's only a month away, but if previous years are anything to go by, the fireworks will be starting any time now.  If you have a firework-phobic dog, now is the time to ensure that you are prepared!  See my last year's blogpost Fireworks ~ How to help your dog cope for lots of useful tips and advice to not only get the firework-phobic dog through the fireworks season, but to ensure that there are no knock-on effects over the course of the winter.  Every year around January/February time I take calls from owners with dogs who have developed what is essentially agoraphobia due to extreme noise sensitivity triggered by the fireworks in November.  This of course can be prevented by reducing the dog's fear levels during the fireworks season itself.

As well as following my own advice for Tilly, I have bought her a 'Thundershirt' for this year.  As you can see, she looks suitably relaxed in it!