Originally posted July 2013

When we get a puppy, we are happy and looking forward.  We look forward to the times we will spend in the company of our adult dog, and all things we will do and all the fun we will do together.  We realize that there will be work along the way, including taking the dog to the vet, training and cleaning up after him, not to mention the dust bunnies and other household reminders he will leave in his wake.  What we often don’t think about is Plan B.

Plan B is what we intend to do in the event of an unexpected tragedy.  How will we deal with an unexpected surgery?  How about when the gate gets left open, and the dog gets out?  What about your own health; who is going to feed, walk and water your dog when you are ill?  What if you die?  When we get a puppy, it is a good idea to have a Plan B for all the things we can think about that the dog might encounter through his life that we wish he didn’t.

I encourage everyone to spend some time planning for medical emergencies, and who will care for your dog in the event that you are incapacitated or if you pass away.  Everyone should think about who will take care of your animals in the event that you cannot.  Our animals cannot care for themselves without our help and if they are presented with a situation where they cannot get the care they need, they could end up in a rescue or at the humane society.  Beyond your animals’ basic care though, there are a lot of things that we can do to help our pets to be successful and not get into trouble.

Teaching your dog to sit when the door opens could save his life.  Just keep in mind that if you are depending on prompting your dog, then it will only work when you are there to prompt him.  I would encourage this person to use putting his hand on the door as the cue to sit instead of his pointed finger!  Image credit: alexeys / 123RF Stock Photo

Let’s start with sitting at the door.  If your dog is accustomed to sitting before going out of your house then if the door is accidentally thrown open, your dog isn’t going to bolt out and into the street.  Making sitting at the door a priority also prevents your dog from bolting out in the event that you have to bring things into the house or a guest inadvertently opens the door for you.  On the flip side, don’t make your dog sit to come in.  Make coming in the house a really rewarding and valuable experience.  I had a dog who used to enjoy jumping our back fence.  To keep that dog safe, I taught him to come to the front door if he escaped the back yard.  He thought this was a great game.  Once he understood to come to the front door if he escaped the fence, then I dog proofed the fence and made it very difficult for him to jump the fence.  Why did I not just fix the fence to begin with?  Simply because that might fail and I wanted a set of behavioural suspenders to go with the belt that fixing the fence was.  I wanted my dog to have a Plan B should he ever get out again.

Another very important behaviour is for your dog to really enjoy having his collar grabbed, by anyone, anytime.  There is a dog who has been missing in Guelph for over a month now, and I regularly get emails and Facebook notes that a dog is missing and has been sighted.  Often these posters come with a note about not grabbing the dog because he is timid.  The best favour you can do for your dog if he is lost is to teach him that being caught and grabbed is a great and exciting thing to do.  It is really easy to do this.  Walk up to your dog with a treat, grab his collar and give him a treat.  Let go and repeat.  Get everyone in the house to do this.  If your dog is timid, work slowly and gently until you can grab any part of his body without warning and make it fun for your dog.  The fact is that if your dog is timid and gets loose, then someone is going to try and grab him, and probably by whatever is the closest body part.

Teach your dog to automatically leave things that they find.  Having a leave it on cue is not as important a behaviour as being able to walk past something that your dog wants and having him just automatically leave it alone.  Consider what might happen for instance if your dog is alone at home and you have left a grocery bag on the floor with a box of baker’s chocolate inside.  Would your dog automatically leave it, or would he only leave it if you had identified that the bag was off limits?  At Dogs in the Park, we teach the dogs that nothing is theirs unless we identify it to them.  The broader implication of this is that if my dog walks down the street and there is something that he should not have on the ground, I don’t have to be on alert to notice it first.  This has so many applications.  One of my colleagues’ mother came to visit once.  Her mom takes a very heavy duty medication and dropped a pill in the house.  Her older dog didn’t eat the pill, but her young puppy did and was very sick because of that.  I cannot count how often I have dropped my own medications, and my dogs all look up not down when that happens.

Here a dog learns to come over a pile of toys and treats.  This prepares him to be able to cope with things that don’t belong to him falling in front of him, and he won’t touch them even if he wants them.  Asking first is a great tool for teaching dogs to leave things that don’t belong to them.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Teach your dog that it is safe to come when called to whomever calls.  Playing lots of recall games helps a lot with keeping dogs safe in the event that they ever get away from you.  Playing games with your dog in fact builds trust and bonds and helps dogs to understand that they are able to come when called no matter who calls them.  Periodically, I have a client who wants to teach their dog cues in a different language.  I do this for Schutzhund, where we do most of our cues in German.  My dogs also know the common English equivalent.  I want to make sure that if something happened and someone else needed to help my dog, he could come when called.

All my dogs learn to wear muzzles when they are puppies and we practice periodically throughout their lives.  My dogs don’t live in boxes; they do stuff.  They will likely get hurt.  They will need veterinary attention, and using a muzzle keeps them and the vet safe while the vet does things that hurt.  Muzzles are perhaps the best tool invented to keep people safe and we need to keep in mind that if your dog needs to wear one, that is not a slight against your dog.  That is the veterinarian taking reasonable steps to keep everyone safe.  When your dog is in pain, he is not likely going to behave the way that he might when he is not in pain.  There is no glory in having a dog who doesn’t need a muzzle and there is a lot of glory in keeping your vet safe.

D’fer had a very serious cut pad that needed medical attention including some surgery to clean it out and stitch it up.  You can see that he is relaxed and concerned when the vet is looking at his foot.  Why should we muzzle a dog who is tolerating this?  Because we want to keep the veterinarian safe and even though D’fer is a real gentleman of a dog who has never ever tried to bite anyone, we don’t feel the need to take any risks with our veterinarian.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Perhaps the most important thing I can do to help my dog have a good Plan B is to make sure that he is well socialized to begin with.  If I am working with an adult dog who is timid it is a very high priority to teach him that he can trust people not to harm him.  This is sometimes difficult when you are working with a dog who was not properly socialized or who has been traumatized, but if something goes wrong, I want my dog to know that he is not going to come to harm if someone tries to help him.  If I am ever in a car accident with my dogs on board, or if I am injured on the trail and a search party is trying to find me, I want my dog to accept that help, no matter what the person looks like or what they are wearing or doing.

Plan B is something we don’t talk enough about.  Years ago, we didn’t talk about fire drills either, but we know they save lives.  The best thing we can do to help our dogs live long healthy and safe lives is to think about Plan B long before we need it.



Late last night, at the end of our business day, at around 10:30 in the evening we picked up our business messages. One of the messages came from a new puppy owner who was obviously frantic. “Call quick” the message said. “We don’t know what to do!” The message had been left on our day off (when we don’t check messages) through the middle of the day. The message had been sitting for about 36 hours. There were three more messages from the distraught owner over the following few hours, and no messages from them yesterday. The owners were obviously distraught and obviously felt that we could help them, but they left no details other than the fact that this was terribly urgent and they wanted to talk to us.

We are a large dog training school and part of our philosophy is that we ought to have the most educated instructors. We do a LOT of continuing education about behaviour and training and a little bit about the health of the dog. We are very good at seeing lameness because we work with sports dogs and if they are lame they cannot work, so we are really good at seeing lameness. We can pull out a tick, and we know what to do in the event of an injury such as a cut or a bug bite. We know how to get to the emergency veterinarian in the event of a serious emergency. What we don’t know how to do is be veterinarians. We are dog trainers and not veterinarians.

The man sitting in the grass is a dog trainer. The man putting eye drops into the husky's eye is a veterinarian. When you need to get help with your dog's health, even in an emergency, you really should not call the dog trainer. If you need to come in, the veterinarian's office will tell you if you need to come in or if you can treat your dog at home. Photo credit dog trainer: Lucy Martin 2015 Photo Credit Veterinarian: Copyright: vadimgozhda / 123RF Stock Photo
The man sitting in the grass is a dog trainer. The man putting eye drops into the husky’s eye is a veterinarian. When you need to get help with your dog’s health, even in an emergency, you really should not call the dog trainer. If you need to come in, the veterinarian’s office will tell you if you need to come in or if you can treat your dog at home. Photo credit dog trainer: Lucy Martin 2015 Photo Credit Veterinarian: Copyright: vadimgozhda / 123RF Stock Photo


The event last night reminded me of a situation that occurred about 15 years ago. John and I had gone to a wedding, and while we were away from home a client called to tell us that their dog had vomited and to ask what to do. They called every half an hour from three in the afternoon until about 11pm when they called to tell me that their dog was feeling better and had gone to sleep. I arrived home at about half past one in the morning, and happened to pick up my messages. Frustrated and angry, I called these owners for an update. Sleepily they answered the phone and said that their dog was fine; just sleeping it off. I asked them to go and wake him up and double check. Not surprisingly to me, the dog wouldn’t wake. When I had them expose his gums they were pale and sticky. I sent them to the emergency vet, who diagnosed the dog with a severe gastrointestinal illness and severe dehydration. The dog spent the better part of the week at the university teaching hospital in ICU. Had I not called, the dog would have died. As it was, he had sustained a much more serious illness than he should have.

After the dog came home and was back to class, I asked my clients why they had not called the vet in the first place. They didn’t want to disturb the vet came the answer. Over and over this has happened to us. When new puppy owners get a dog, they may not be prepared for what to do if the dog gets sick. We are a regular contact for a lot of new dog owners, and we try and work at sharing information about training behaviour and husbandry. Husbandry is the fancy term for “how to take care of an animal.” We share things like “don’t let your dog exercise immediately after eating a big meal because you increase the chance of torsion or bloat” and “you can tell when your dog is overheating by the shape of his tongue, and the white sticky saliva”. We know these things the way a football coach knows that his players need to be hydrated and to rest in hot weather when they are working out. The thing is that the coach is not a doctor and the trainer is not a vet.

Everyone should be blessed with vets who are as contientious as our vets are. When we visit the vet’s office, we ask a lot of questions. We ask things like “how do we know if our dog has a fever?” or “what should we do if our dog splits his toenail”. Over the years we have amassed an incredible amount of knowledge. Over the years we have learned to recognize when a dog is in serious trouble, and we share this information when needed with the clients we meet, with the caveat that they must talk to their veterinarian.

In class if I notice that a dog has a red eye and some discharge, I will send that dog home and then I will suggest they see their vet. When one of the dogs in my class split a toenail I helped to clip it down with my nail clippers so it wouldn’t catch and told them that if it was catching on things, they should go see their vet. It healed up without having to see the vet. When a dog has diarrhea in class, I send him home, disinfect the floor and suggest that they see the vet. Once, when a puppy guzzled back the entire classroom water bowl while the instructor was outside helping the other students to toilet their dogs, I called the local emergency vet and gave the client a map and sent them to the vet.

I am qualified to do what amounts to canine first aid; I can assess when something is a “band aid” level of injury and treat it at home, and I can tell when an injury or illness is more serious, and then I send my clients to the vet. When you call me up and don’t leave me any details, I cannot help you. As a training school, we don’t have the sort of emergency services that a veterinary hospital has. We don’t even answer the phone as often as they do!

Here is a chart to help you decide what to do:

Problem What to do
Vomiting Call your vet
Diarrhea Call your vet
Snagged or tore a toenail If minor, clip nail back. If you can see the quick, Call your vet
Cuts and abraisions Treat as you would a human cut; if it is minor wash it out and cover it up. If it is more serious, Call your vet
Hit by a car Call your vet
Stopped eating for more than three days Call your vet
Excessive drinking Call your vet
Found a tick or flea on your dog? Call your vet and ask them to teach you what to do next time
Snotty nose Call your vet
Goobery eyes Call your vet
Bleeding from the mouth Check the mouth and if your puppy has lost a tooth, don’t worry. If your adult dog has lost a tooth, call your vet.
Falling over Call your vet
Limping Call your vet
Sneezing or coughing Call your vet
Sudden weight loss Call your vet
Bite wounds from a dog attack or fight Call your vet
If you showed me this in class, I would tell you to call the vet. I am not a vet, and this is the sort of injury that I cannot treat beyond cleaning it with soap and water, but it really should be seen by a vet in case there is an infection or a thorn or something in the wound. Copyright: photoraidz / 123RF Stock Photo
If you showed me this in class, I would tell you to call the vet. I am not a vet, and this is the sort of injury that I cannot treat beyond cleaning it with soap and water, but it really should be seen by a vet in case there is an infection or a thorn or something in the wound. Copyright: photoraidz / 123RF Stock Photo

The short answer to who you should call is “the vet”. They will tell you if you need to come in and get your dog checked out. If they are closed, their message machine will give you the number of the emergency service they use. Talk to your vet beforehand so that you know what to do if you are overwhelmed by something your dog does. Have a plan in place and know where you will go in the event of an after-hours emergency. As dog trainers, we would really like to help you, but the bottom line is that we often cannot help, and what we will tell you is to call your vet.