The Lonely Dog

Last spring Lori Taylor, 39, of Brooklyn, New York, was as happy as she’d been in recent memory. After being laid off eight months earlier, she had a new job, a steady paycheck, and somewhere to go every morning.

But the other member of Taylor’s household—a two-year-old dachshund named Oliver—was markedly less excited. “Oliver had gotten used to me being home with him,” said Taylor. “He kind of freaked out when that changed.” Suddenly her landlord, who lived upstairs, was complaining that the once quiet Oliver was spending his late afternoon hours each day barking.

The pair could not remain in the apartment if something didn’t change.

So Taylor consulted her veterinarian, who recommended as much exercise as she and her pooch could fit in. “I started getting up an hour earlier each day, and walking fast around the park with Oliver for that entire hour to wear him out. It was either try that or move. Luckily it worked.”

Dr. Trisha Joyce, a veterinarian with New York City Veterinary Specialists, says canine exercise is often the first defense against loneliness and other emotional issues that lead to behavior problems in dogs. Below, Dr. Joyce weighs in on how to identify and ameliorate loneliness in your best doggy friend.

Do Dogs Get Lonely?

Dogs are social animals, and generally don’t tolerate long periods of being alone. “Whether it’s ‘lonely’ as we feel it or not, we don’t know, but they do exhibit signs that being alone is not good for them,” says Dr. Joyce. Signs can include behaviors like barking, chewing furniture, excessive self-licking and soiling the house. “Different breeds have different tolerance for being alone,” explains Dr. Joyce. “For example, border collies and other dogs bred to be on high alert are likely to be the most sensitive. Also younger dogs, or dogs accustomed to spending most of their time with others, won’t likely respond as well to long periods of being alone.”

How Can You Identify Loneliness in Your Dog?

Dogs communicate with their owners through their actions. A dog that is injuring itself (like with excessive licking or tail biting) or causing other disturbances (like barking or destroying property) during longer stretches of time spent alone may be reacting to loneliness, which is an especially likely cause if the amount of alone-time has recently increased. Once your veterinarian has ruled out medical explanations for the problematic behaviors, emotional problems can, and should, be addressed.

One caveat: it is important to distinguish loneliness (which crops up during repeated, lengthy periods of being alone) from separation anxiety, diagnosed when dogs become very upset as owners prepare to leave, and then exhibit behaviors like not eating when owner is away, or gnawing at doors and windows even during short periods of solitude. Your veterinarian can help you understand whether your pet’s problem likely results from loneliness or separation anxiety, the latter of which is often treated with a combination of behavioral techniques and medication.

How to Help Your Dog Cope with Loneliness

While quitting your job is not likely a viable option, many dog owners have found the strategies below useful:

Wear them out. Dr. Joyce notes that a dog worn out from a healthy morning exercise session is calmer and happier throughout the day. Just ask Taylor, who continues to exercise Oliver every morning. (“He’s stopped barking, and I’ve lost 10 pounds!” Taylor says.)

Entertain them. Dogs do better alone when they have something to do. Interactive toys (like the red rubber Kongs that allow you to hide food for your pet to excavate) can lie around until Fido needs to busy himself with something.

Buy them company. If a midday dog walker is in your budget, it’s a good option for the lonely dog. Just 20 minutes of social interaction with the walker and others they meet on the street can go a long way toward improving your dog’s mood.

And finally, Dr. Joyce adds, make the most of your time together when you are able to be with your pooch. “Engage with your dog,” she says. “Toss a ball, give him a good brushing, or even just watch some television together. At the end of the day, dogs are happy just to sit on the couch with you, too.”

Find Out Your Mutt's Family Tree

The American Kennel Club pedigree of Fallon Flights O’Fancy, an Irish setter owned by Anne Schilling, is a mile long. The stunning purebred from Madison, Wis., justly holds his furry mahogany head high, but he isn’t snooty when he selects his friends. One such canine chum is Frank, a scruffy, shelter-rescued mutt that Fallon met at a dog park.

Unlike Fallon, Frank’s family history is a mystery. But thanks to new DNA testing procedures, Frank, and most mutts like him, can have their mixed breed ancestry deciphered. The tests are the scientific version of the best guessing game of all, “What kind of dog is that?” which has kept dog park walkers in conversation for years. The DNA tests cannot reveal every bit of information about your dog, since genetic data isn’t available for every breed and mix, but even if you don't receive a fully positive identification, at least some breeds can be eliminated.

How the Tests Work
One such DNA testing company is MetaMorphix Inc. of Beltsville, Md., whose cheek swab kit allows dog owners like you to test for about 38 breeds. To participate, you place the provided swab in your dog’s mouth and swoosh it around to coat it in saliva and mouth cells that hold DNA, a cellular material that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of your dog. A blood test from the Rockville, Md.-based Mars Veterinary, part of the same company that makes M&M’S candy, can detect more than 130 breeds. The American Kennel Club currently recognizes over 150 breeds, and the United Kennel Club recognizes 300 breeds, so there are inherent limitations to the current tests. As time goes by, though, these organizations will likely include more breeds, making the procedures more accurate and revealing.

Geneticists have identified over 300 DNA markers that help identify specific breeds. The recently mapped canine genome refers to the content and organization of genetic instructions for dogs -- sort of the protein recipe for canines. The ability to identify specifics in the canine genome gave birth to the breed DNA identification tests. “The more dogs these companies test, the more information they’ll have,” says Susan Nelson, DVM, of the Kansas State University's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. “Hopefully that information will have medical relevance. Right now it’s mostly just for fun.”

Dog Family Surprises
Alexa Lewis of Los Angeles, Calif., decided it would be fun to test her two mixed breeds. She used the cheek swab test and felt that the results for her cordy -- a chow chow and Akita mix -- were accurate, but she was surprised about the results on her golden retriever mix, Riley. “Golden retriever was eliminated for Riley even though they couldn’t tell us his primary breed. Riley has three breeds: saluki, dachshund and Labrador. That could explain his short legs.” Lewis plans to give Riley the blood test when they next visit his veterinarian.

Another dog owner who has tried out the new DNA testing is Cecilia Castillo of Tewksbury Township, N.J. She used the cheek swab on her purebred border collie and her two border collie mixes. The purebred’s came back as 100 percent border collie. “I knew Sally had to be a mix because she doesn’t act like a border collie, although she looks like one. I thought it would be cool to find out what was in Sally’s genetic makeup -- only for curiosity, no other reason,” said Castillo. “The results on Sally’s cheek swab were missing something, so when the blood test came out, I figured I'd retest her.” The results were different, although both tests revealed two breeds in common: Lab and dachshund. “They both showed that she has no border collie. The cheek swab test showed traces of husky, dachshund, and a significant amount of Lab. The blood test showed traces of Cavalier King Charles spaniel, golden retriever, German shepherd, Lab and dachshund.”

So what did Castillo do with the results? “I concluded that Sally is a true mutt.”

Health and Behavior Benefits to Testing
“Knowing a dog’s heritage can help identify temperament traits,” said Lisa Peterson of the AKC. “Breed-specific training is important. If the majority breed is listed in these tests, it will aid an owner in how to approach training and socialization.” Peterson added, “For example, Cecilia thought she had a border collie, the obsessive compulsive breed of the dog world. Knowing that Sally has some husky, which tends to be more independent, means Cecilia may approach training in a different way.”

Like Castillo, you don’t have to do anything with the information, or like Lewis, you can joke about it with your dog park buddies and other friends. Lewis says, “We’ve made a lot of non-dog owners think we're crazy when we tell them about the testing!” Information gained from dog DNA-testing also has the following applications:

You may consider altering your training style based on behavior related to certain breeds. Sporting dogs like Labradors need significant daily exercise to prevent boredom-based destruction. Guard dogs like German shepherds are naturally protective and can be aggressive without appropriate socialization. Toy breeds like papillons can be notoriously difficult to housebreak, so patience is required.

Inform your veterinarian if your mix has any breed known to have difficulties with anesthesia. For example, greyhound or whippet breeds have low body fat, and part collies are sensitive to ivermectin, a compound used in some heartworm preventives.

Familiarize yourself with the breeds’ predisposition toward certain diseases. Miniature schnauzers are prone to inflammation of the pancreas. Dalmatians are prone to uric acid stones. Old English sheepdogs are prone to a type of anemia.

Explore performance activities that you may not have considered for your dog; these may include agility exercises for herding breeds or field tests for hunting dogs.

Add to your exercise choices. If your dog’s ancestry includes a water-oriented breed, such as poodle or Newfoundland, see if it will enjoy learning how to swim.

Consider going to dog shows to look for visual evidence of other breeds that might be related to your dog.

Create a fun pedigree document discussing historical backgrounds of breeds rather than specific parents.

Make a scrapbook using your dog’s photos and photos of the known breeds of your mix. Consider including other people’s opinions of your dog’s heritage mix, no matter how bizarre it might be. The scrapbook could even include a funny illustration of your dog by using parts of magazine photos to piece together a collage.

Mutt Owners Get the Last Laugh

Family history information about your dog’s breed heritage won’t change the way you feel about your pet. You will love your dog just the same, but curiosity killed the cat, or in this case, dog, and satisfaction brought him back. You won’t be lost for words the next time someone asks you about your favorite canine companion, no matter how unusual the breeding turns out to be. In fact, where mutts are concerned, the funkier the mix of breeds turns out to be, the better and more entertaining answers you’ll have.

How to best bond with your new dog

It’s an exciting day when you bring your new dog home, but it can also be a challenge. Getting your new pet comfortable with her surroundings can be tough, but with a little work you’ll be best friends in no time.

Start by Puppy Proofing
When you first introduce your puppy or dog into your home, you want to make sure the area is safe. Prior to arrival, Caitlin Fitzgerald, DVM, recommends puppy proofing your house. “Puppies and dogs often like to chew and mouth things they shouldn’t,” she said. “Take care to hide exposed wires, and place anything of value that you do not want to become a chew toy out of reach.”

It is also a good idea to confine the new pet to a small area so he can get used to the new smells of the house and become acclimated to the environment. Fitzgerald suggests trying to keep loud noises and activity levels down so the new pet does not become frightened. Another option that some pets also do well with is having their own crate or cage that they can get to know as their safe place.

Get to Playing
Playtime is when the real bonding can start. “Specific toys that help to build bonds are any toys that engage the human and the dog, such as Frisbees, tennis balls, rope toys” says Fitzgerald.  “Fetch and tugging games are also fun for the owner and the dog, plus it’s a great way to add in an element of exercise.”

Teach Trust
It is important to teach your dog trust early on through petting, grooming and snuggling. Scent plays a big role in trust, so spend time holding and petting your new dog. You can also give an article of your clothing to the dog to sleep with to further share your scent. “Dogs like to be given direction, so a confident owner will be a great leader to the dog, and that helps with building trust,” says Fitzpatrick. “A dog obedience trainer is a very good option for owners to learn proper ways to lead their pet.”

Whatever happens, stay committed. Oftentimes bonding happens faster than you expect, and you’ll be able to enjoy the wonderful and rewarding experiences that your new dog brings into your life in no time!

Avoid a Canine Custody Battle

Like many caring dog owners, Stanley and Linda Perkins of San Diego, Calif., dote on their pointer-greyhound mix, Gigi. But in the late ‘90s when the couple decided to split, a two-year canine custody battled ensued, racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees and taking up almost half of the three-day divorce trial.

In an effort to clinch the case for her client, Sandra Morris, a family law attorney representing Mrs. Perkins, decided to use a tactic that worked in several successful child custody cases. Morris shot a day-in-the-life video of Gigi, showing the adopted pooch going for walks, sleeping under the desk and playing on the beach. It worked. A superior court judge awarded Mrs. Perkins permanent canine custody.

Fighting for Fido
The fight over Gigi is just one of a growing number of pet custody cases around the country. Within the last five years, members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) report that pets are increasingly representing a new kind of battleground as couples attempt to work out divorce settlements.

Dogs are often the animals caught in the middle, but the organization’s attorneys say they’ve also handled custody disputes involving cats, horses and even boa constrictors. The spike in cases has to do, in part, with society’s changing attitude toward pets as family members, says Adam Karp, an attorney of animal law in Bellingham, Wash. “It’s become more legitimate to make a claim for sharing a life with a companion animal,” he says. “There’s nothing unreasonable about asserting a deep and profound emotional connection to another being if that being is not a human.”

Recognizing the importance pets play in people’s lives, and to address the increasing number of custody disputes, politicians in Michigan and Wisconsin recently introduced the first bills in the U.S. outlining how divorcing couples, or those legally separating, must handle the placement of animals.

Ownership Agreements
Most pet custody cases involve married couples or domestic partners, but another common situation is where roommates, who are agreeably co-owners, split up and need to figure out an arrangement. Karp says that often takes the form of establishing a visitation schedule or buying out the other person to become sole owner. Roommates and unmarried couples thinking about adopting or purchasing a purebred can avoid future heartache, though, by creating an ownership agreement outlining what happens to the animal if they part ways. You can do this with the help of an attorney or just on your own. If you do an Internet search for “dog ownership agreement,” you’ll find a few examples online. Books covering legal issues for dog owners, like Every Dog’s Legal Guide: A Must-have Book for Your Owner and other titles from Nolo Press, can also provide tips and guidelines for this sticky scenario.

Pets are Property
If you wind up in the middle of a canine custody dispute, you’ll need to prove you’re the legal owner -- not the better caregiver -- in order to win. That’s because pets are considered to be personal property, just like your T-shirt, toaster or television.

Proving legal ownership entails showing that your name is on some, or all, of the following paperwork:

  • Adoption application or sales contract If you didn’t save the paperwork, contact your breeder or the shelter for a copy. Also dig through your files for a canceled check or credit card statement showing you paid the adoption fee or purchase price.
  • Veterinary records Obtain medical records from your veterinarian’s office. Show that you’re financially responsible for your dog’s ongoing care by producing cash receipts, credit card statements and canceled checks. 
  • City licensing forms Most cities and counties require that you license your dog annually. Ask for a copy from the department you went through to buy the license.
  • Microchip documents If your dog is implanted with an identification chip, call the manufacturer’s registry for the records.

In situations where ownership status is in question, Karp says it’s best to avoid going to court because a judge may not understand the strong connection you share with your pet. Instead, if both of you want the dog, try to compromise early on in the proceedings by having an attorney help you negotiate a private contract for co-ownership or possession. Then ask the court to enforce the agreement.

Emotional Distress
If you go through a divorce and wind up hammering out legal details, don’t forget about the emotional toll it may take on your dog. Nancy Williams, a certified applied animal behaviorist in Manchester, Md., has had many clients come to her and say, “I just got divorced and now my dog’s a mess.”

Rarely, though, are dogs actually upset because of a person disappearing from its life, she says. Instead, signs of stress -- such as pacing, restlessness and panting -- usually appear because of moving into a new home or losing a canine brother or sister to the estranged spouse.

To reduce your dog’s anxiety level -- as well as your own -- Williams suggests a combination of daily distractions and increased exercise. Three easy ways to reduce this stress include:

  • Go for more walks Take your dog for a stroll on a retractable leash for maximum freedom, making sure to provide ample time for sniffing.
  • Play hide-and-seek Instead of putting your dog’s meal in a bowl, hide small portions of dry food around the living room for him to find.
  • Enroll in a class Positive reward-based training classes are offered almost everywhere in the country and run the gamut from basic obedience to doggie sports.

Canine custody disputes take an emotional toll on both two- and four-legged family members. But, by working out a compromise before tempers flare and making sure you’re clearly listed as an owner on important records before a breakup occurs, you’ll avoid a lot of heartache -- not to mention hefty legal fees -- in the future.

Is Virtual Fun in Your Dog's Future?

Browse the aisles of your local pet store these days, and you’ll see the evolution of the dog toy, from synthetic bones constructed of new-age materials to flying discs that dispense treats. What you won’t find -- just yet -- are computer games for your pooch. But could you one day have to not only fight the kids for computer time, but wrestle with man’s best friend as well for a spot in front of the screen?

In a new study, researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria conducted research on dogs that identified and differentiated images using touch-screen computers. The study offered intriguing insights on a couple of fronts:

  • The ability of dogs to use computers In the experiment, dogs used touch-screen monitors at doggie-eye level, shielded by screens on both sides to prevent distraction. A hidden automated feeder device dispensed food pellets as a reward through a small hole underneath the screen. A human was in the room to help ease the dogs’ nerves. Researchers used clicker training to teach the dogs to touch their noses to the screens in response to images. “I think we are all surprised how well this new method works and especially how much the dogs like it!’’ says researcher Friederike Range. “It would not work unless the dogs enjoy this kind of work.’’
  • The ability of dogs to form abstract concepts Range and her colleagues found that dogs could classify complex photographs into categories, much as you or I would. Researchers showed the dogs photos of landscapes and dogs. The dogs were rewarded with pellets when they selected a dog photo. Then, when shown different dog and landscape photos, the dogs were still able to select dog photos. In a second test, dogs were shown new photos of landscapes without dogs and landscapes with dogs; they still selected the dog photos. It’s uncertain whether the dogs in the experiment recognized the dogs in the photos as actual dogs, but they were able to categorize the images.

    “It shows dogs can form some fairly esoteric concepts,’’ says Dr. Stanley Coren, a University of British Columbia psychology professor and author of How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind (Free Press).

The age of the doggie computer geek has not dawned quite yet, though, say Coren and other experts. They cite several reasons for this:

  • Vision limitations “Dogs are all nearsighted,’’ says Coren. “If they were human beings, and they could drive, they would have to wear glasses.’’ While dogs have enhanced night vision, they also have less color perception, says Carolyn Georgariou, a dog behaviorist in upstate New York. Your dog processes sensory input with its nose first, ears second and eyes last, says Georgariou.
  • The need for companionship While we all know people who are quite content to spend hours in the company of their computer, your dog isn’t likely to sit in front of a screen when it could be frolicking with you.
  • Training time It could take time and patience to train your pal to operate a touch screen, not to mention you’d need a touch screen to begin with. As Coren wryly puts it, “A dog’s paws are not good enough to make it a decent typist.’’

Still, the concept of dogs using computers has potential. “It shows the computer is adaptable for certain kinds of cognitive testing on dogs,’’ Coren says. Some day, says Range, it might help latchkey dogs pass the time while their owners are at work.

Computer games could offer mental stimulation and help keep dogs alert and engaged, says Range. There might be a useful component for humans, too. Some training, particularly for assistance dogs, might be conducted using computer games or programs that teach the dogs to recognize certain symbols. While the experts don’t know of any dog computer games in the works, Range’s research opens the possibility for some enterprising company to take on the challenge.

But, of course, no virtual world will replace the sort of old-fashioned, time-tested play your dog needs. Technology can’t improve on a good ol’ romp outside for a game of fetch or Frisbee with your dog.