How to Keep Your Pet Safe During the Holidays

The holidays are a time for joy, gifts, food and merriment for your entire family, including your dog. It is also a time when there are new dangers and hazards that you must consider in order to keep your pet safe during this festive season.

The Tree
Start with your Christmas tree. When putting up your tree, there are a few things you should remember to make sure that your pup doesn’t get hurt or sick. “Be sure that your Christmas tree is securely anchored so it doesn't tip and fall,” says Dr. Camille DeClementi, senior toxicologist at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. “This will also prevent the tree water—which may contain fertilizers and bacteria that can cause stomach upset—from spilling.”

You should also consider what’s on your tree. Your tree may sparkle and shine but many of the wires, lights and ornaments can be potentially hazardous. Dr. DeClementi explains, “Dogs explore the word with their mouths, so any type of tree ornament should be kept out of reach of your dog.” Placing your ornaments higher on the tree is a good way to decorate safely. Unattended candles or a Menorah pose a threat to your dog, as well, as they can be easily knocked over and can cause a fire.

The House Decorations

Before decorating your home with live plants during the holidays, consider artificial options. “Many people have heard that poinsettias are deadly to pets, but this isn’t true,” says Dr. DeClementi. “However, if ingested, they can cause an upset stomach or vomiting, but life-threatening problems are not expected. When ingested, holly can also cause vomiting and diarrhea, and mistletoe can cause possible digestive upset and, rarely, heart problems.” You can avoid all of these problems by choosing artificial silk or plastic plants or a non-toxic arrangement.

The Christmas Gifts

Since dogs are known to tear toys apart and subsequently swallow the pieces, it is imperative to give the gift of a safe toy. “Stick with chew toys that are basically indestructible, or some pet-safe treats,” suggests Dr. DeClementi. “Rubber toys that can be stuffed with healthy foods or chew treats that are designed to be safely digestible are good stocking stuffers for your furry friends.”

The Food

Holiday celebrations tend to revolve around many foods that can be dangerous if ingested by your pup. For example, chocolate is poisonous to dogs, so make sure to not leave it gift-wrapped under the tree. Your dog can easily smell the chocolate, eat it and get ill. Some other foods that are poisonous include grapes and raisins, macadamia nuts, coffee and tea and the sweetener xylitol.

“You might know what is toxic, but don’t assume that your house guests have that same knowledge,” says Dr. DeClementi. “Tell all of your guests to please not feed your dog any table scraps, and to keep the lids on garbage cans.”

If your pet accidentally ingests a potentially toxic substance, get help right away.  Contact your veterinarian or call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435 for immediate assistance.

Following these tips will ensure a safe and happy holiday for your and your pet!

Find the Right Sport for Your Dog

Dog sports are fun, exciting and doggone habit-forming. You and your dog can participate in dog sports just for the fun of it, or you can ramp up training and compete in regional trials. Here are my favorite dog sports and some tips for discovering what might be the right sport for your pet based on his breed and training.     

The Fab Four
1. Agility:
This is my top pick and a sport you’ve probably seen on TV. It’s like gymnastics but you won’t find any balance beams here. The equipment includes weave poles, tunnels and jumps. Your dog negotiates a course following your commands, and the fastest and most accurate dog is the winner. If your Shetland sheepdog insists on jumping over the coffee table or your Parson Russell Terrier loves shimmying down the kids’ sliding board, this could be the sport for them.

2. AKC Rally®: Rally is a form of obedience. In Rally, the dog and handler walk through a numbered course with the handler giving specific commands at each station. The scoring is not as rigorous as traditional obedience, but Rally does involve intense teamwork. Training begins on-leash and progress to off-leash execution. If your German shepherd or poodle always has that “what do you want me to do next” look on his face, Rally could be right up his alley!

3. Scent or nose work: Do you have a beagle, dachshund or Norwegian elkhound?  These are scent hounds, but training any dog to follow his nose can be lots of fun and it can even evolve into a career like being part of a search and rescue team. Typically, nose work involves teaching your pet to recognize a scent like peppermint or clove, and asking him to find something with that scent on it. Training starts off easy with hiding something in a box, then gets more difficult by moving the scent further away to a different room, and eventually to the outdoors.

4. Treiball: Treiball is German for “drive ball” and it’s becoming very popular with herding breeds like Welsh Corgis and border collies. In Treiball, your dog “herds” a large inflatable ball into a goal. This is a great sport for dogs that don’t have access to flocks of sheep or cattle to train with. When your dog engages in the sport of Treiball, its herding instincts can go wild without him actually being in the wild!

Walk Before You Run
Now that you know a little about dog sports, you should learn some basic prerequisites for participating. Before literally jumping into a sport, your dog should be well-socialized and have graduated from puppy and adult obedience classes. It needs to function in a group of other dogs without exhibiting any form of aggression, and it must follow your commands even if distracted. Lunging, excessive barking or growling is not acceptable.   

Any dog can do any sport, but knowing your dog’s lineage provides clues about his inherent traits. In general, the herding breeds excel at agility, the working breeds are great at Rally and the scent hounds can’t resist a smell-based hide ‘n seek. There are always exceptions to the rule, so do an online search for “dog sports” or “dog agility” in your region and enroll your dog in a class just for the fun of it.

Photo: Corbis Images

4 Steps to Prepare Your Dog to Play a Sport

Is your dog the canine version of Usain Bolt, sprinting faster than his neighborhood peers? Or maybe he’s like Gabby Douglas, jumping over hurdles with ease.

Even if your pet is just an athlete wannabe, you can get him in good shape by taking the right steps in these four, easy-to-remember categories: veterinary care, nutrition, exercise and training.

Dog Sports Preparation Tip #1: Visit Your Vet

Before starting any exercise or sports training program with your dog, it’s always a good idea to visit the veterinarian. “You want to make sure your dog is ready to exercise,” explains Susan Nelson, clinical associate professor at Kansas State University’s Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. “You may have to start slow to build up their endurance, but once you get started, it can be fun.”

Dog Sports Preparation Tip #2: Select the Right Food

Charlie, a Jack Russell terrier who belonged to Virginia-based veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson, more than passed that first veterinary visit and was “an extraordinarily active dog.” Nelson says that Charlie couldn’t wait to run, swim and hunt during the autumn months, which Nelson’s family spent in southern Louisiana. But Charlie was so active that he seemed to burn calories faster than he could take them in.

Nelson decided to feed Charlie an “active formula” dog food, meant for canines like her speedy boy, and that “made a huge difference in his energy level and his physique,” she says. Such foods have sources of fat, protein and carbohydrates in appropriate proportions to meet the energy needs of active dogs and optimize their performance. In many of these foods, high-quality protein sources comprise about 29 percent of the mixture, to support lean muscles. For sustained energy, the formulas may have about 18 percent fat, which can include fish oil to help maintain healthy joints and minimize inflammation.

Dog Sports Preparation Tip #3: Choose Appropriate Exercises

The size and breed of your dog along with his particular likes and dislikes can help to determine what sports are best. “It really depends on what the dog can do,” Susan Nelson says. “For short-legged or arthritic dogs, walking is good. Running is good for bigger dogs who are in good shape -- but how much running you can do depends on the dog and how in shape it is. Remember, you can’t run a Basset Hound like you would a Great Dane.”

If you have a small dog, walking up to a mile or two each day is about the limit. Larger dogs can generally handle three or more miles of walking or running. As a basic guideline, Susan Nelson says that “dogs should get exercise at least twice a day, generally around 15 to 20 minutes each session for small dogs, and 30 to 40 minutes or more for large dogs.”

Dog Sports Preparation Tip #4: Train for Sports Gains

Your dog’s breed also might affect how you handle training. Did you know that your dog’s breed can influence how he responds to cues?

Márta Gácsi of Eötvös University, Hungary, for example, worked with a team of researchers to examine how various dog breeds made sense of the human pointing gesture. The scientists found that gun and sheep dogs were better at following a pointed finger than hunting hounds, earth dogs (dogs used for underground hunting), livestock guard dogs and sled dogs.

Don’t forget that mental training is just as important, since dogs are incredibly smart. “Dogs are in a special way tuned in to humans,” explains Jozsef Topal, who works in the Institute for Psychological Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. “They are interested in finding out how we think, and they are able to do it by reading our subtle communicative behaviors. So if you are a responsible dog owner, you should devote time for communicating with your dog, not just by talking to it, but also by solving problems together -- which may include training tasks, playing, or other dog activities.”

Canine Athlete Initiative: Get Your Dog Started!

The American Kennel Club (AKC) recently launched the Canine Athlete Initiative, a major public awareness campaign. “Whether your dog joins you on your morning run or participates in weekend agility competitions, all dogs are canine athletes,” says Dr. Shila Nordone, chief scientific officer of the AKC’s Canine Health Foundation. Visit the AKC’s website for educational materials on the most popular dog sports, including agility, dock diving, flyball, Frisbee, herding, hunting/field trials, lure coursing, obedience, rally, sledding and tracking.

The Best Places to Hike With Your Dog

Few places are more appealing to Samantha, a Labrador Retriever, than Kehoe Beach at the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, Calif. “Sam loves to explore the wildflowers and hike the trail with me,” says owner Betty Sullivan. “The trail offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. These days, the summer fog blows in like natural air-conditioning, so it’s a perfect place to cool off, unwind and re-energize.”

Kehoe Beach is among hundreds of sites across the United States where you can hike with your dog. (In this case, on-leash only, and not on the beach south of the trail, which is off-limits to canines.) Be sure to do your homework to figure out where exactly you and your pet will be welcome, and how to best handle the hike.

Hiking With Your Dog: Some Things to Consider

  • Your dog’s breed: Obviously, a little Chihuahua couldn’t handle the same terrain that a larger, more muscular dog could. Brett Rolin of Banfield Pet Hospital says the following breeds are built for hiking: Beagles, German Shepherds, Irish Setters, Golden/Labrador Retrievers, Boxers, Huskies, Malamutes, Border Collies and Australian Shepherds. “In general,” says Rolin, “sporting, herding or working dogs are a fine choice.”
  • Your dog’s health: Doug Gelbert, a dog hiking expert who runs hikewithyourdog.com and has authored numerous books, reminds that dogs should be in good physical condition and acclimated to the task at hand before hikes. Pre-training is advised if your dog requires conditioning.
  • Weather: “Heat and sun do dogs no favors,” says Gelbert. Conversely, short-coat breeds might suffer in the cold. Choose a day that will lead to a comfortable hike for both you and your pet.
  • Altitude: Again, acclimation to the elevation is key to an enjoyable outing for both of you.
  • Trail Hazards: Research hazards you and your pal might encounter along the way. Poisonous snakes might lurk on some trails, while others could be littered with broken glass or lined with poison ivy. Nature can be paradise, but it pays to plan ahead for such problems.

What to Bring
Rolin shares a Banfield fact sheet that recommends owners take the following on a hike with your dog:

  • Fresh water and a collapsible bowl
  • Food and treats
  • Current ID tags and a well-fitting collar
  • A sturdy leash for walking or securing your pet to a specific area
  • A proper car restraint, like a kennel or seatbelt
  • A bed or blanket to lie on
  • Doggie bags for waste
  • Pad-protective booties for rocky/rough terrain, snow, ice, cacti or nettles
  • First aid kit
  • Towel to clean your dog
  • Snake bite kit (if appropriate for your area)
  • Dog sunscreen/hat
  • Doggie backpack for sharing the load (use only if your dog is used to doing this)

Where to Go
Websites, books, apps and other sources can help to advise you where you can hike with your dog. Sullivan likes to peruse the National Park Service website. “If you do searches like ‘dogs allowed’ or ‘dog hike,’ you’ll find more specific information on where dogs can and cannot go,” adds Sullivan.

Gelbert often conducts fun surveys, where dog owners share their favorite places to hike. Here are just a few examples:

  • Best Baltimore Hike to a Waterfall: Falling Brook, Rocks State Park
  • Best Pittsburgh Hike Through Meadows: Friendship Hill National Historic Site
  • Best Cleveland Place to Hike All Day With Your Dog: Hinckley Reservation
  • Best Washington, D.C. Historic Hike for Your Dog: Battlefields of Manassas

Be sure to call the site or investigate online beforehand, however, to learn specifics about possible restrictions or changes. Few things are more depressing than packing up, heading on the trail, only to find a “Dogs Not Permitted” sign along the way.

“Now is the time to hike with your dog,” advises Sullivan, who is already planning her next trip with Sam. “These waning days of summer frequently offer more sunshine, which means more time to enjoy a fun day trip.”

Photo: Corbis Images