The flavor of last month was “Desi.” This month it will be “Norsk” (Norwegian). I am in Norway for a month, meeting with and learning from a leading expert in all things “dog” – Turid Rugaas.
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I have been here for more than 10 days now. Each day has been an intense learning experience, with several lessons learned. Some lessons have given me confidence to deal with issues. Some have humbled me by exposing the vast canine world that I still need to understand. Some have reduced me to tears, showing me the sheer arrogance or ignorance with which we humans inflict pain on our dogs. Each lesson is something I will treasure for life and do my best to pass it on to as many people as possible. Towards that effort, this month I dedicate all my posts to the lessons learnt in Norway.
This week I have been spending time at Mandal Hundesenter – a boarding facility in the south of Norway, in a quaint little port town of Mandal. My host here is Agnes, one of the owners of the facility. Each day, I go down to this facility, that she calls a Dog Hotel, and I help the people there with the day-to-day activities. Working here has given me a new perspective on what goes on inside a boarding facility and what one should expect in a good boarding facility.
The first thing that struck me when we approached the Dog Hotel was the pin drop silence. Not a single bark. I spent the first half of the day sitting outside the main building wondering how many dogs could there be inside, considering there was not a single bark from within. One by one the dogs started coming out for their walk. I met 12 dogs in all! Dogs of all kinds and breeds. Dogs that pulled like crazy, dogs that were rather energetic, dogs that were calm and walked like pros…The whole range.
The second half of the day, I could briefly enter the building. One of the dogs had been quite agitated after being walked with another dog at a distance. Me entering the building did not help. He started barking hysterically. So Agnes and I sat outside while the others brought him into the main hall and sat with him, giving him comfort while he snoozed. I wanted coffee desperately and Agnes needed to use the loo. But we both HAD TO wait till he was done with his sleep because disturbing sleeping dogs is a BIG NO NO. Another was a big strong rottie, afraid of squeaky toys, tiny frogs and strangers. So I was taken into the backyard and made to sit still while he examined me and accepted my presence. I felt humbled.
So, what have I learned here that can be useful for pet-owners in India? The main thing that stands out is that – dogs left at boarding facilities can get extremely stressed out. The new environment, new people and so many other new dogs can be very stressful for dogs that are already dealing with being away from their humans. Apart from keeping our pets safe, boarding facilities need to focus on keeping stress levels low too.
What’s all the fuss about stress? Stress can have several short and long term effects on dogs – on their health, behavior and lifespan. Stressed dogs have several hormonal imbalance that leads to several issues – high cortisol can damage brain cells, learning can be slowed down causing them to become unmanageable, they can become highly nervous leading to depression or aggression. Stress has so many side effects that I really need to write another article just on that. But for now, it suffices to say that keeping stress levels low in a dog has to be a priority for a dog owner, apart form providing basic needs like food, shelter and facility to relieve themselves.
As pet parents, we need to ensure that, in our absense, boarding facility put their best effort to reduce stress. For that, we first need to understand how the boarding environment can stress our dogs out. Boarding facilities do that in one of two distinctly different ways.
At one extreme, there are places where all dogs of all shapes and sizes are let loose to run around together for almost the entire part of the day. Imagine if you had to party all day long, day after day. How tiring would that be? Imagine insisting that you get along with every person you meet. How fair would that be? Imagine kids playing together. After a while, as the kids start getting tired and play starts turning into fights. Several kids get cranky and are crying. This is exactly what happens to dogs if left with each other all the time. Dogs, just like humans, have preferences in who they want to socialise with and for how long.
At the other extreme, dogs are all kept in individual kennels and are not let out at all, perhaps for short walks and that’s it. Dogs, just like humans, can get bored out of their wits if kept in a kennel or a small crate all day, with nothing to do. One could argue that a bored dog is much better than a stressed dog. But if they are kept in close proximity to other dogs, with no exercise or social interaction, they could get frustrated. Frustration leads to stress.
Dogs need moderate exercise, mental stimulation and if possible, some social interaction based on how social they are. Some dogs may even be asocial and not want to have any social interaction. Some dogs might need less exercise than others. Young dogs, old dogs and sick dogs need less exercise than healthy adult dogs. Boarding facilities need to understand the individual needs of every dog and give the dog the right amount of exercise, right amount of social interaction and sufficient mental stimulation too. And as a dog parent, our task would be to find a boarding facility that does this. So, how exactly do we do that? Here are some tips:
Pick a facility with good kennels: Inspect the facility up front to ensure that the kennel is airy, well ventilated, comfortable and has the right temperature. We could also send the dogs bed along with the dog. This ensures that the dog has a comfortable bed and a familiar corner in the unfamiliar surroundings. The dogs need to be able to sleep to deal with stress. So free access at any time of the day to this cozy space, where they can be left alone, is of utmost importance.
Guide the kennel staff on the needs of your dog: In a stressed environment, the dog needs more sleep than it needs exercise. It’s a good idea to keep daily exercise a little under what your dog is used to and to keep the social interactions lower than normal. A stressed new environment is not the right place for a dog to be learning to socialize.
On the other hand, if your dog is highly social, then not meeting the other dogs at all can be very frustrating. Let the staff know what’s right for your dog. It might even be good to discuss with the boarding staff on which specific dog or dogs your dog will be socialised with and if possible, meet the dog. The aim will be to find dogs who are close in size, age and temperament to your dogs existing doggy-friends, with the intent of keeping things as familiar as possible.
Prevent aversives and harmful equipment: Leave your dog’s harness with the staff and insist that they use it. In your absence they might use harmful equipment like choke chains and spike chains. The staff might also believe in punishment or “corrections” when your dog does something they consider misbehaviour. So it’s best to ensure the dog is not put in a situation where he/she is considered to be misbehaving. Shorter walks and more sleep is best and keeps them out of such situations.
Ensure mental stimulation: Dogs need mental stimulation, more than they need exercise. It helps them sleep and to de-stress. So it’s a good idea to ask the staff how they help the dogs achieve that. One boarding facility in Bangalore lets out dogs into a play area, one at a time. I think this is quite a good idea. As pet-parents we could make this more interesting by sending in a few toys with our dog. I would also send some interesting odds and ends that they could put in the play area for the dog to explore – old plastic bottles, dusting pans, plastic or steel utensils that have some interesting food smells, old clothes etc… Just like we take books when going on vacation. Something new and interesting to explore when in the play area.
Build familiarity with the facility: Take your dog to the facility a few times before you leave your dog there. Keep the visits short and interesting. At one of the facilities we tried for our dog, we visited the place the first day and sat with her there for an hour and returned. The second day we left her there for a few hours, while we went out to get lunch. Then we left her for a day. This helps with reassuring them that you will always come back and prevents possible separation anxiety (SA). Once a dog develops SA, it takes a lot of time to reduce that. So it’s worth putting in the little extra effort up front and avoid SA all together.
Increase familiarity; decrease stress: This should be the mantra- both for you, as well as the staff at the boarding facility. Leaving a dog at boarding is never going to be free of stress. Some dogs eventually learn to cope. Some may never do that. If possible, try to leave the dog at a relative’s or a friend’s place or try to find someone to sit your dog at your own house.
But if none of these are options for you, then I hope the above tips help you establish a low stress environment for your dog at a boarding facility. You are paying for the service, demand what is right for your dog. And remember to work on your dog upfront to bring down over all stress levels of your dog. Next month, my posts will focus on stress.
Do you have any other tips for reducing stress and increasing familiarity in a boarding facility? Something that has helped make it a little easier for your pet? If so, please do share the tips. Some doggy somewhere might thank you for it.