Barking, Retrieving, and Sucking on Mini-Straws

I spent the weekend at a vet emergency and critical care seminar and, aside from happily learning that even at that level they’re advocating keeping the animal and environment calm for the sake of the dog instead of emergency doc-jock reactivity, I discovered that the speaker hates to see excited dogs (especially Labs and goldens) engaged in fetch and barking marathons in public parks. In their most benign form, these displays upset me because these animals are so obviously stressed in that environment and their owners so oblivious to this fact.

These dogs aren’t frantically going after that ball or toy and bringing it back to the owner and then barking like crazy as they run toward where they hope the ball or toy will fall when the owner throws it because they’re having so much fun. They’re not proving how much exercise big dogs like them need. They’re using the game to control that person’s movements in what is a threatening environment for the dog. They bark when they don’t have the toy in their mouths to keep others away because a) they must run away from the owner for get the toy, and b) that person is focused on where to throw the toy next instead of the dog. Meanwhile, because this behavior is often a crowd-pleaser, the owner keeps the game going to maintain that attention.

That’s the behavior and bond side of it.

On the medical front: If the kind of human-canine relationship that supports this kind of stressed canine behavior persists long enough, a day will come for some of dogs during which they’ll experience laryngeal paralysis and suddenly collapse struggling to breathe. Instead of moving out of the way when the dog breathes in, their now paralyzed vocal cords will block their airways. (If you want to get some idea of what this feels like, take one of those tiny straw stirrers that come with your coffee at Starbuck’s and try to suck air in through it. Not fun.) Because the anatomical changes may take time to reach this tipping point, the incident that triggers the dog’s collapse may seem relatively minor.

Does this mean that games of fetch in parks and other complex environments with lots of people and other dogs are out? No. It means what it always means: context is everything. Know your dog, including the difference between a stressed and a happy dog. Know yourself.  And ascertain the physical and mental complexity of any environment  before you subject your dog to it.

And in keeping with the reality that there’s no such thing as only a medical, behavioral, or a bond problem, this explains why there’s at least one ER academic and clinical vet and one vet ethologist who cringe when they see stressed dogs engaging in such interactions in complex stress-inducing environments while oblivious people encourage them.

Accidents always can happen. But it always makes sense to be one step ahead instead of one behind, setting dogs up to succeed for behavioral and bond as well as health reasons.