Mouthy Shelter Dog

I’ve been working with a pit mix named Sonny who likes to use his mouth too much.  He’s a large young mail dog, who was intact when he was transported in from another shelter.  He’s a handsome boy, with a cinnamon-colored coat and a big head, with a few scars on it – apparently bite marks from other dogs.  When he arrived, the shelter staff and volunteers noted that he had a habit of putting his mouth around peoples’ hands and arms and gently holding them without applying pressure.  A lot of people considered this to be endearing and a sign of affection.

However, in recent weeks, this behavior has escalated.  Now, when people enter Sonny’s run, he actively grabs at their hands and clothes.  No one has been bitten yet, but he is progressively applying more bite pressure and, the fact is, he has a mouth like a hippo.  I am a big guy, and he can wrap his mouth completely around my forearm.   In recent visits with him, I found that he becomes very excited and mouthy when I take him out of his run, to the point that it is very difficult to harness him and attach the leash – he grabs any hand that comes near him.  Naturally, this is an impediment to getting him adopted – and he is an otherwise friendly and gentle boy.

I theorized that there are two factors contributing to this behavior:  First off, the shelter personnel are bribing him with treats whenever he gets grabby, just to do their essential care-taking jobs of cleaning, feeding and socializing him.  This has the effect of reinforcing his mouthiness.  Secondly, he becomes very excited when being handled, and responds to that with him mouth.  I also noticed that he ramps up his excitement level very quickly in response to minimum stimulus.  His grabbing behavior can be triggered simply by a human handler reaching out towards him.  So, he has a pre-existing tendency to use his mouth when interacting with humans which has been reinforced by shelter personnel rewarding that behavior.  This problem behavior becomes more pronounced when he is in a state of excitement.

Although we try to make the shelter as positive and pleasant as possible for our animals, it is still a very stressful place to be a dog.  They are bombarded by unfamiliar sounds, scents, excited dogs, strange humans who stand and stare at them, and a constant stream of other stimuli that keep them on edge.  Sonny is no exception.  He seems to be in a constant state of tension and arousal, which puts him over his behavioral threshold whenever he is being visited or handled by shelter staff – and which seems to be eroding his bite inhibition.

In an earlier post, I discussed Aggie, another pit-mix with a mouthiness problem.  We addressed her issue by providing her with safe objects to grab and mouth, with no human interaction – thereby removing the reinforcement of that behavior.  After just a few days, the problem behavior lessened dramatically Excited Biting / Arousal Biting | The Animal Nerd.  In Sonny’s case, this treatment wasn’t an option.  He wasn’t seeking an outlet for stress, he was seeking human contact by an inappropriate means – his mouth.  Sonny was attempting to reach out and touch people, but his over-excited state was getting in the way.  He had no inclination to grab anything but people.

I tried a two-fold approach with Sonny:  First, I instituted a tug-o-war game to his exercise.  I got him a stiff, knotted rope toy, and enticed him to grab and hold it, while I tugged on the other end.  He caught on quickly and began playing.  I began offering him the tug toy and playing with him when first entering his run and harnessing him up.

He was content to calmly watch other dogs and people.

I also added a gentle voice correction and a negative reinforcement when he tried to grab my hands.  I responded to his attempts with a sharp “Eh!”, stopped interacting with him and put my hands behind my back.  If he persisted, I would stand, cross my arms and turn my back for a few moments.  This, coupled with offering him an alternative (the tug toy) allowed me to put on his harness and leash.  (Note:  In general, I do not encourage people to correct shelter dogs’ problem behaviors.  Not only can this have the wrong effect on fearful dogs, it can also add to the overall stress they feel just by being in a shelter.   However, after getting to know Sonny, I felt that he was not fearful of people and would accept a correction, if it was followed with positive reinforcement of the appropriate behavior – in this case, redirecting to a tug toy.)

Secondly, I drastically reduced the excitement level of our time together.  Instead of taking him to a play area full of toys, I took him on a walk and let him set the pace and destinations.  I let him sniff anything that he wanted to, examine anything that was safe, and let him decide what was interesting to him.  Then I found a quiet, shady spot and sat down with a paperback book, keeping a good hold on his leash but otherwise ignoring him.

After a few minutes, I felt him lay down on my feet.  He was relaxed, soft-eyed, and simply taking in the sights, sounds and smells around us.  After a few minutes, I reached down and touched him on the side of his face, and his only reaction was to lean in for a pet.  After a while, other people and other dogs came into view, and his only reaction was to be interested in watching them.  When I brought him back to his run after an hour, he was calm and relaxed.  He became somewhat aroused and mouthy when I was removing his harness, however I attribute that to the treats that his handlers had been bribing him with during this process.   In the picture, there are several people and dogs out of frame, but he was maintaining a calm and interested demeanor, well within his ability to control his reactions.

All in all, I’m pretty sure that Sonny doesn’t need any formal desensitization to reduce his biting behavior.  Instead, he needs to have his overall stress level reduced and have calmer interactions with people.   Coupled with differential reinforcement – in this case, encouraging him to interact with people by playing tug with an approved toy, we should be able to reduce his problematic mouthiness.  I recommended that his handlers reduce the number of treats offered while handling him, reduce his playtime for a while, and concentrate on quiet walks and quiet sessions outdoors.    We need to help him find his “off switch” so that he can calmly interact with potential adopters and cope with the stressors he encounters.

Toby

Now that I’ve finished working with Jack Final Update on Jack | The Animal Nerd, I’ve begun handling a new dog at the shelter.  Toby is a large, handsome, one-eyed (his injured eye was recently removed) mixed breed with a number of behavioral issues that need to be addressed.

Prior to my meeting him, all I knew about him was that he had shown a distinct tendency to grab and bite his leash, and that he was inclined to treat handlers’ clothing as a tug toy.  So when I started working with him, I took him outside for quiet walks (no excitement or play) with an appropriate tug toy for him to grab and carry.  I limited the time that I held onto the tug, or that I engaged in play with it, to control his excitement level.  He began each session acting like a tornado, almost impossible to harness, pulling on the leash and grabbing at me, but the treatment worked and he calmed down after a while.

When he calmed down and we sat for a while, I noted that he was actually very insecure.   When we found a bench in a quiet area, he sat with his back to me and pressed up against my leg for security, while watching everything that went on around him.  He was showing signs of being a little apprehensive, but had it under control.

He began sitting with his back to me, pressed against my leg for security.

 

It became clear that his problem behaviors were not “learned” but was a reaction to the stressors of being in the shelter, being handled by strangers and (probably) the changes in his vision.  It also became plain that he likes people and readily affiliates with new handlers.   This made his treatment very easy.  In our next session, upon entering his run I spent ten minutes just being quiet, friendly and positive with him, kneeling down close to his eye line; when he began to ramp up, I added calm pets and body rubs, then quietly worked on straightening out his twisted Freedom Harness.  By the time I was done, he was sitting quietly, ready to go.  His walk went much more smoothly with no leash biting or grabbing, and he interacted with me in a normal way.

Volunteers and handlers have reported that he is doing much better with this approach and is becoming more relaxed in general.  I think this is a positive outcome and that he’s ready for adoption.

 

Final Update on Jack

After seven weeks of treatment, Jack ( My New Project Dog, update. | The Animal Nerd ) is continuing to do very nicely.  He is interacting very well with the kennel staff and the two volunteers who have been working with him.  His leash manners are very good, he is relaxed while being harnessed and he is continuing to relax and enjoy trips outside – responding to verbal prompts and interacting with his hander.  His reactivity to strangers is much reduced, and he has progressed to the point that he is interested in potential adopters who visit the shelter – approaching the front of his run and getting their scent.

Jack’s anxiety is greatly reduced and he is enjoying contact and petting from his human friends.

Jack is now inviting pets and scratches from the people he knows, although he is still cautious around strangers.  He is also easily startled by sudden movements and retreats when people bend over him for any reason.  However, he is gaining confidence on a daily basis.  I’ve recommended that we increase the number of volunteers that are allowed to interact with him and walk him, with the provision that all human interactions be completely positive (no verbal corrections and plenty of positive reinforcement).

He is now available for adoption and the shelter is carefully screening applicants so that he is placed in the right home.   I don’t expect that I will be making any more posts about him, although I’ll be spending time with him until he’s adopted.

My New Project Dog, update.

In as recent post, I described my initial contact with a new shelter dog that had been displaying significant anxiety with people. My New Project Dog | The Animal Nerd After a few days, I’ve made some progress with Jack and, as he began reacting more “normally”, I’ve noted some behavioral characteristics that had not been apparent before:

First, he is very reactive to other dogs.  Our runs are glass-fronted, and whenever another dog is walked past his “space”, he charges up to the glass and barks very excitedly.  (He has a wide range of vocalizations, but his rapid “Stay Away” barks are particularly shrill.  Mariah Carey wishes that she could his high notes like this little guy can.)  However, he does not completely lose control when reacting to dogs and does not redirect his excitement to people or objects.  I suspect that a good part of his reactivity may be due to barrier frustration and that we may be able to socialize him with at least some other dogs.

Second, he is definitely more comfortable with women than with men.  He readily approaches women and invites contact with them.  However, once contact is made, he exhibits appeasing signals, such as rolling over, having a low posture, and submissive grinning.  He is making headway with meeting new humans but has a long way to go before he feels confident with us.

I’ve noticed that he tends to urinate in the center of his fabric bed, which leads me to think that he had previously been housetrained using pee pads.  This is just something to note for his eventual owners, as they may need to restart housetraining from scratch, depending on their desires.

He has accepted additional handling and is visibly more relaxed.

As I mentioned, I have made progress with the little guy.  In a recent session, I was able to increase the level of physical contact that he’d allow.  This included increasing the area that he’d permit scratching and petting, as well as calming rubs and massages.  He became more inclined to lean into pets and ear-scratches and allow me to touch him with two hands.  He still maintained a “personal space” with me, however it became much smaller than previously.

Most recently, I was able to put an Easy-walk harness on him and take him outside for a walk.  He accepted the harness and leash easily and, once he got past his initial excitement, walked well.  This was an important development, as he began to “check in” with me while walking – looking at me for social referencing and direction.  He was also visibly relaxed and became more responsive to verbal cues from me.  I had to be careful with my posture and actions – for example, he became apprehensive when I bent over him to untangle the leash from his front legs – but he was overall much more confident.   I think this is something of a breakthrough that needs to be repeated and reinforced.

My treatment plan is developing to increase the level of contact with him and to have more men involved with his daily activities, to include feeding and handling, and gradually increasing their contact with him.  He has become available for adoption, and I will recommend in-home support post-adoption.

Tribute to a Dog.

In 1855, Attorney George Vest represented a man who was suing a neighbor over the death of his dog.  His trial summation has been preserved in part, and has come to be regarded as one of the greatest representations of our relationship with “man’s best friend”.

Gentlemen of the Jury: The best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us, may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads.

The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog. A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer. He will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings, and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

If fortune drives the master forth, an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes his master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by the graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad, but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even in death.  

Vest went on to serve as a US Senator from the state of Missouri for 24 years until just before his death in 1904.

www.sos.mo.gov/archives/education/olddrum/StoryofBurdenvHornsby

 

 

Keeping your dog out of trouble when meeting people

“He just came at me, with no warning!”, “All of a sudden, he just lunged at the other dog!”, “One minute, he was fine; and the next minute he was attacking!”   Whenever I hear statements like this, my response is usually “No, probably not.  He was probably giving off plenty of signs that he was scared or stressed, and he wanted to get away from whatever was bothering him.  You either didn’t see those them or didn’t understand them.”

In an earlier post, I addressed the topic of dogs being overly reactive to each other Dog-to-Dog Reactivity | The Animal Nerd.  But what about dogs reacting to people?

Most so-called dog aggression problems are completely avoidable.   They want to avoid conflict with people or other dogs, and they want to avoid frightening situations.  But we often do not give them the ability to do so, or we inadvertently prevent them from getting away from the thing that’s bothering them.  The entirely predictable result is that the dog gets even more stressed and is pushed over his behavioral threshold, resulting in him being labeled “aggressive”.

There is a simple, common-sense way to prevent any injury, drama or fallout from your dog becoming overly stressed and acting out:  Be aware of what signals your dog is broadcasting, and remove him from the situation that is stressing him out.

The fact is that dogs are communicating all the time.  They are a pretty darned intelligent species with sophisticated non-verbal communications abilities.  Not being handicapped by a spoken language, they are constantly communicating with us, with other dogs and with the world in general.  They fill every waking moment with indications of two things:  How they are feeling and what they plan to do in the next few minutes.   And make no mistake, they understand and react to the non-verbal messages that we are constantly broadcasting.  They’ve been living with us for over 20,000 years and they read our facial expressions, posture, gait and our other unspoken signals like a book.

Your relationship with your dog is unlike the ones you have with your human friends and family.  You control where he goes, what he encounters and limit his options for what to do in the situations in which you place him.   Since you control everywhere he goes, it becomes your responsibility to learn canine body language, particularly your own dog’s non-verbals, so you can avoid putting him in danger or in highly stressful situations from which he cannot escape.

When your dog meets a new person, it is up to you to control the situation.  This means that you are responsible for watching your pup and making sure that he is not anxious or overly excited:

Is his tail held at a neutral height, relaxed and wagging?  Or is it lowered or tucked, indicating anxiety?  Is your dog holding it stiffly with a slight wag?  That can mean stress or a warning to other dogs to stay away.  What are his ears doing?  Are they relaxed and held closely to his head? Are they held tightly back, indicated fear?  Are they held alertly in a forward position?  What about his back?  Is it held stiffly or even slightly rounded?  Or is it relaxed?  Is he turn his head away from that person, indicating that he wants to avoid contact?   Several illustrated examples of stressed or relaxed behavior can be found here:  Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu).

And what is the other person doing?  Is he or she approaching you dog head on, locking eyes with him?  Is he or she bending over your dog in a threatening posture?  It is up to you to watch your dogs’ responses to that person’s actions and determine if your dog is becoming alarmed or anxious.  Remember, whether the other person knows it or not, he and your dog are having a body language conversation and your dog is responding to everything he does.  For example, I recently worked with a shelter dog who was extremely wary of new people.  It took me a little while to accept me and to be relaxed and comfortable with me on or off leash, and we became friends easily.  The next day, I saw her react to the presence of a particular volunteer (a large, bearded man), during which she engaged in distancing behaviors, growling and barking.  I had him change his approach to her:  Instead of approaching her head-on and looking directly at her, I had him walk towards her at an angle without making eye contact then stand facing 90 degrees away from her.  She immediately relaxed, slowly approached him and accepted treats from him.  Following that meeting, he was able to leash her up and take her for walks without any drama.

The bottom line is that it is up to you to know how your dog displays stress, anxiety or happiness before you put him in situations were he can potentially get in trouble.   You need to understand that he is constantly telling you what his emotional state is and take that into account when you are taking him places or putting him in contact with other people.  You need to understand when he’s telling you that he wants to approach or avoid something or someone.  When you with your dog and other people are involved, look at him from time to time and ask yourself “If it were up to him, what would he do right now?  Stay?  Leave?”  Because that is exactly what he is saying to you.

There are several very good sources that can help you get a better understanding of your dog’s body language:

Rugaas, T. (2005).  On Talking Terms With Dogs:  Calming Signals 2nd Ed .  Direct Book Service.

Abrantes, R. (1997).  Dog Language.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

Aloff, B. (2005).  Canine Body Language:  A Photographic Guide.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

Handelman, B. (2008).  Canine Behavior, A Phot Illustrated Handbook.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

Coyote Encounters

In a previous post ( Eastern Coyote Myths and Reality | The Animal Nerd ), I discussed eastern coyotes and their habits – and tried to dispel a few misconceptions about them.  Since then, I have spoken with a number of people who have encountered coyotes in suburban communities and are somewhat apprehensive about their proximity to their small children and pets.  Based on these concerns, I would like to offer some guidance on how to manage interactions with coyotes and how to discourage them from approaching people or residences.

A few facts about urban coyotes:

First, they are predators and opportunistic feeders.  And they’re omnivores.  They will hunt and forage either in small family groups or as individuals.  As individuals, they will hunt small animals or forage for fruit and tasty vegetables, and will scavenge human food sources.  If you leave food out for neighborhood cats or desirable local wildlife, you can expect to get a visit from a coyote.  They will also prey on any small feral or domestic animals that they can catch, including small dogs and housecats.   Individual coyotes do not chase or try to catch deer, but will do so in family groups.

Second, although they are semi-social animals, they do not form “packs”.  Coyotes live as individuals or in small family groups consisting of a breeding pair and their pups, possibly including young coyotes from a previous litter or a bachelor that they allow in their group.  Large packs of coyotes are simply not a thing.  And they do not always stick together in groups, when you see an individual on his own, he could simply be doing his coyote business away from his family and will return to them later.

Third, they are vocal.  When you hear an individual coyote howling, he is generally trying to get a response from his pack/family in order to have them join him, or to establish a territory for himself.  When you hear a group howling together, it is generally a greeting behavior.  People generally wildly overestimate the number of coyotes involved in a group howling session, three or four of them can sound like eight or ten.  What they do NOT do is howl during hunting or to “celebrate” a kill.  They have no wish to warn prey that they are in the area or to attract other predators to any animals that they have successfully hunted.[i]

Fourth, eastern coyotes are genetically distinct from the ones found in western states, particularly so in the northeast states.  While their population expanded eastward from the upper mid-western states, they intermingled with a hybrid wolf population in Ontario and picked up from grey wolf and dog DNA along the way.  This does not mean that they are “coy-wolves” or “wolf-hybrids” or any such scary mutation.  They are about ninety percent coyote and have not become a new species.  They are, however, slightly larger and have more variation in their coats.  The coyotes in the southeast

If a coyote appears to be watching you, or seems to be following you, he is not hunting.  He’s either curious or is worried because you are near his den.

states did not expand through areas where they could pick up any wolf DNA, however that population did pick up a very small amount of dog genetic material.  They are not interbreeding with domestic dogs –  there is no need for them to do so as their population isn’t under any pressure.[ii]

Fifth, they are becoming more common.  Over the past several decades, coyotes have established themselves along the east coast and in the New England states.  Urban and suburban areas have abundant food sources for them and they are thriving in our neighborhoods.  They have established themselves as apex predators, filling the niche that we created when we humans exterminated other predator species in the east.  They have become part of our urban landscape, much like deer, foxes and other native species.  Over the years of human contact they have become a primarily nocturnal predator, although they are also commonly seen during daylight hours. [iii]

Which brings us to the topic at hand:  As they become more common, people are encountering them more often in locations that coyotes were not expected to be found.  And, being humans, we often respond to unexpected events with alarm or by behaving inappropriately.  So, I’d like to offer some advice and guidance on how to act in the presence of coyotes and how to be a good neighbor to them.

First and above all:  We want them to be shy and wary of us.  They are not tame or backyard animals and, for their own benefit, coyotes should be fearful of humans.    They are wild animals and we need to keep them wild.

Second, if you see a coyote at a distance, going about its business, there is no reason to do anything except say “Huh, a coyote.” and go back to what you were doing.  if you find that a coyote is watching you or even appears to be following you at a distance, there is no cause for alarm, and you don’t need to do anything.  He isn’t stalking you, he’s just wary and curious.   In fact, if one is “following” you, it may be that you have wandered closer to his den and pups that he would like, and he is escorting you from the vicinity.[iv]

However, if one is closer to you or your home than you would like and does not seem to be avoiding contact with you; you can engage in “coyote hazing” to discourage him from human contact.

Note:  Before engaging in any hazing, take a minute and think.  Are you possibly near his den?  Is it possible that there are pups nearby?  Coyotes have one breeding season, in late winter, and pups are born in the spring, maturing over the next several months[v].  You don’t want to engage in any threatening behavior to any animal that is protecting its young.  Second, take a minute to observe the coyote.  Does it appear to be generally healthy and alert or is it acting as if it is ill or suffering.  If so, just leave the area and notify local wildlife authorities.[vi]

If the coyote appears to be healthy and you are in an open area where dens are unlikely to be located, you can discourage him by hazing.  This consists of making yourself threatening to the coyote, taking advantage of their natural fear of humans.  Make yourself big, wave your arms and shout at it.  Take a couple of threatening steps towards the coyote while you’re doing this.  Noisemakers such as whistles or shaker cans, or bright flashlights are also helpful.   Hazing generally works, but might not be effective if the coyote is already habituated to human presence.[vii]  If it doesn’t cause him to flee, then you should simply leave the area.  Remember, the point is to keep him wary of humans and help prevent him from becoming accustomed to being around people.[viii]

In addition, you should discourage them from being near human homes.  There are several simple steps you can take to accomplish this:

First, do not put out feeding stations for any wildlife, including feral cats.  They are prey animals and their presence will attract coyotes to you home.  It is never a good idea to feed wild animals, regardless of how cute they are.[ix]

Second, if you have bird feeders, regularly clean the area around them to discourage any rodents from feeding on fallen birdseed.  They are also prey for coyotes and will encourage them to hunt in your yard.

Third, if you have a cat do not let them roam outside.  They are prey for coyotes, hawks, large owls and other urban predators.  In addition, they are active predators of desirable wildlife, including songbirds. [x]

Fourth, if you do not have a securely fenced yard, don’t put your dog outside without y

ou being present and in control of his movements, even if he is on a tether – particularly if your dog is not spayed or neutered.  And if you have an invisible fence, remember that it will keep your trained dog in your yard, but does nothing to prevent predators from entering.[xi]   Also, do not allow your dog to interact with coyotes during walks, and keep your dog leashed if you are in areas where coyotes tend to be found.[xii]

Summing it all up:  Coyotes are here and they’re here to stay.  They are adjusting to our environment and are thriving, and its up to us to live alongside them and to act responsibly.  We can do this by limiting our interactions with them, discourage them from getting accustomed to us and helping them to stay wild.

_____________________________________________________________

[i] Fergus, C. (January 15, 2017).  Probing Question:  Why do Coyotes Howl?  Penn State News.  Retrieved from Probing Question: Why do coyotes howl? | Penn State University (psu.edu)

[ii] Nagy, C.,  (2017)  New York’s Newest Immigrants:  Coyotes in the City.  Anthrozoology Graduate Program, Canisius College

[iii] Coyotes 101.  Coyote Smarts.  Retrieved from Coyotes 101 – CoyoteSmart (coyotesmarts.org)

[iv] What to Expect During Coyote Pup Season.  March 22, 2021.  Wolf Conservation Center.  Retrieved from What to Expect During Coyote Pup Season | Wolf Conservation Center (nywolf.org)

[v] Bradford, A. and Pester, P.  April 02, 2021.  Coyotes:  Facts About the Wily Members of the Canidae Family.  LiveScience.  Retrieved from Coyotes: Facts about the wily members of the Canidae family | Live Science

[vi] Coyote Hazing Field Guide. Project Coyote.  Retrieved from CoyoteHazingBrochureFieldGuide.pdf (projectcoyote.org)

[vii] Bonnell, M. A & Breck, S. W.  (2017).  Using Resident-Based Hazing Programs to Reduce Human-Coyote Conflicts in Urban Environments.  Human Wildlife Interactions 11 (2).

[viii] Coyote Hazing:  Guidelines for Discouraging Neighborhood Coyotes.  The Humane Society of the United States.  Retrieved from Coyote hazing: Guidelines for discouraging neighborhood coyotes | The Humane Society of the United States

[ix] How to Avoid Conflicts with Coyotes.  Urban Coyote Research Project.  Retrieved from How to Avoid Conflicts with Coyotes | Urban Coyote Research

[x] The Case for Indoor Cats.  The Wildlife Center of Virginia.  Retrieved from The Case for Indoor Cats | The Wildlife Center of Virginia

[xi] Derrick (March 9, 2021). Coyote Behavior –  Fascinating Facts About Coyotes.  Wandering Outdoors.  Retrieved from Coyote Behavior – Fascinating Facts About Coyotes (wanderingoutdoors.com)

[xii] Dogs and Coyotes.  Project Coyote.  Retrieved from Dogs_Coyotes.pdf (projectcoyote.org

 

Penny, an update

I wanted to provide an update on Penny.  Her desensitization to stairs is ongoing, and she is now willingly using outside stairs and handicap ramps.  After reviewing her progress, I’m of the opinion that much of her hesitancy to use stairs or door

Reiki for Animals

This article is the latest in my discussion of alternative medicine approaches that have become commonplace in the care and treatment of our companion animals.  Today, we will discuss the art of Reiki.

What is Reiki?

According to its practitioners

“Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It is administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy.”  (What is Reiki, nd)

The origin of Reiki dates back to the early 20th century Japan and is credited to Mikao Usei.  Usei is said to have investigated ancient, lost healing arts and rediscovered the art of directing Universal Life-Force Energy (Rowland, 2010) for the purpose of healing illness and injury.  The research he is supposed to have performed in recovering this healing art is not documented and a plethora of legends have sprung up about it.  Some accounts invented by later Reiki practitioners say that he journeyed to India to study with healing mystics there and others imply that he learned the methods by which the Buddha performed healing miracles (Monckton, nd). He is said to have trained a few disciples in this healing art who, in turn, trained others.  Over the years, this practice has become both refined and varied in its application.

What is a Reiki practitioner?

There are three levels of Reiki “mastery”, each of which can be learned from a course of instruction.  There is no oversight or professional certification for Reiki; students are certified by whichever organization they enroll in for courses of training (Nelson, nd; Crowhurst, nd.)  Many of these courses are available online for home study.  Reiki practitioners are said to be “attuned” by the Reiki master who trains them, either in person or by correspondence (Adams, 2016)

How is Reiki administered?

There really is no standard of treatment for Reiki practitioners.

  • Touch: Traditional Reiki is administered by the practitioner physically touching the person who is under treatment and channeling healing energy to that person through his or her hands.

    Non-touch animal Reiki

    There are standard locations for this touching to take place (the seven chakras of the human body), however the practitioner is also able to place his hands anywhere that he feels the flow of energy is required (Cutler, 2011)

  • Non-touch: In cases of physical injury, Reiki practitioners will often position their hands over the injury, claiming that healing energies are being channeled into the wounded or injured area.   This is often done in Reiki treatments of animals.  This is often done from a considerable distance, for the safety of the Reiki practitioner (Adams 2016).  Practitioners will also “beam” Reiki from across a room for safety reasons (Paul, nd).
  • Remotely: Reiki is also administered remotely, over great distances, across time and space, by the practitioner holding a piece of paper with a “patient’s” name and address, or even a picture of that person, while manipulating symbols or crystals.  This is done by means of “The Hermetic Law of Similarity” which states that we are all made of energy and are therefore all connected (Johnson, 2015).

What is the standard of treatment?

Given that Reiki is administered either by touch, without touching, across a room or across great distances, there is no standard of treatment.  Nor are there any specific standards for addressing particular injuries or ailments; this is all left to the subjective judgement of the Reiki practitioner.

And there is no standard of training.  Every Reiki instructor certifies his or her own students in whatever methods are included in that course of training.  There is no measurement of effectiveness except for the subjects’ feelings of whether they have been helped by the treatment.

How is it used in veterinary treatment?

Canine chakras

It is used to treat animals for a variety of conditions, by the same touch, non-touch, distance methods discussed above.  Some Reiki practitioners have identified the locations of animals’ chakras, which would server to determine where the healing energy should be directed.

Does Reiki work?

There are very few quality studies of Reiki.  Most have been found to be seriously flawed by lack of control groups, subjective interpretation of data and other flaw.  A 2008 review of clinical trials of Reiki treatment for a variety of conditions concluded:

“In total, the trial data for any one condition are scarce and independent replications are not available for each condition. Most trials suffered from methodological flaws such as small sample size, inadequate study design and poor reporting…In conclusion, the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition. Therefore the value of reiki remains unproven.” (Lee, Pittler & Ernst, 2008)

One 2017 review of studies, performed by a member of the Australian Usei Reiki Association, claimed that the majority of clinical trials indicate that Reiki is ‘a safe and gentle “complementary” therapy that activates the parasympathetic nervous system to heal body and mind.’  (McManus, 2017).  However, it should be noted that the author of this review has no medical qualifications, and that the parasympathetic nervous system controls resting heart rate and digestion and performs no healing functions.

A 2011 study examined the use of Reiki in which a group of people undergoing chemotherapy underwent treatment by certified practitioners, while another group were treated by untrained persons performing “sham Reiki”, with a third (control) group of patients undergoing standard care.   This study found that the persons treated by both the certified and “sham” (placebo) groups reported the same results in terms of well-being and comfort in comparison with the control group.  The study concluded that there is no medical benefit derived from Reiki, but that patients derive a sense of well-being from one-on-one care from a nurse practitioner, regardless of the care being provided (Catlin & Taylor-Ford, 2011).  I was also able to find a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study found that Reiki had no effect over placebo on subject’s heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and stress (Bat, 2021).

So, based on the evidence, we can only conclude that Reiki is a placebo. And, despite its popularity and the mythology surrounding it, there is no indication that it has any medical or therapeutic value.  As the Catlin and Taylor-Ford study indicated, the value of Reiki is simply the one-on-one presence of a supportive person.

But, if it’s a placebo, how can it work on pets?

The simple answer is that it doesn’t.  The placebo effect is felt by the animals’ owners.  The owners are primed by the Reiki practitioner to see signs of improvement in their animals and, being inclined to believe in this treatment, fall victim to confirmation bias.  This is particularly the case with dogs.   Dogs are very attuned to our moods and are adept at reading our body language and facial expressions, and they look to us for social cues.  If a dog sees that his owner is encouraged or relieved that a treatment is perceived to be working, then that dog will respond to the owner’s change in mood – further reinforcing the owner’s belief that Reiki has worked wonders.

Conclusion:

I am sure that many Reiki practitioners are sincere and honestly believe in their work.  But the simple fact is that there is no medical value in this “therapy”.  And, if it is used in place of proven, science-based veterinary medicine, then it is harmful and amounts to withholding care from suffering animals.

References:

Adams, T. (January 4, 2016).  Reiki for Animals.  Retrieved from Reiki for Animals | Intuitive Understanding

Bat, N. (2021).  The Effects of Reiki on Heart Rate, Blood Pressure, Body Temperature, and Stress Levels: a Pilot Randomized, Double-Blinded, and Placebo-Controlled Study.  Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 43 (5).  doi:  10.1016/j.ctcp.2021.101328

Catlin, A. and Taylor-Ford, R. L. (2011).  Investigation of Standard Care Versus Reiki Placebo Versus Actual Reiki Therapy to Enhance Comfort and Well-Being in a Chemotherapy Infusion Center.  Oncology Nursing Forum 38 (3).  doi:  10.1188/11.ONF.E212-E220

Crowhurst, M. (nd). Reiki Level I, II and Master Certification – Energy Healing.  Retrieved from Reiki Certificate: Master Certification in Energy Healing | Udemy

Cutler, N. (2011). Reiki Hand Positions. Institute for Integrative Healthcare.  Retrieved from Reiki Hand Positions | Massage Professionals Update (integrativehealthcare.org)

Johnson, K. (2015).  The Awesomeness of Distance Reiki.  Retrieved from universoulheart.net/soul-journeys-2/the-awesomeness-of-distance-reiki.html

Lee, M. S., Pittler, M. H. and Ernst, E. (2008).  Effects of Reiki in Clinical Practice:  A Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials.  The International Journal of Clinical Practice 62 (6).  P 947-954.  doi:  10.1111/j.1742-1241.2008.01729.x

McManus, D. E. (2017). Reiki is Better Than Placebo and Has Broad Potential as a Complementary Health Therapy.  Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine 22 (4).  1051 –  1057.  doi: 10.1177/2156587217728644

Monckton, G. (nd). The History of Reiki.  Retrieved from The History of Reiki (georgianamoncktonreiki.com)

Nelson, D. (nd). Reiki Infinite Healer.  Retrieved from Reiki Infinite Healer Course | Chakras, Symbols + Certification

Paul, N. (nd). Using Reiki for the Family Pet. Retrieved from Using Reiki for the Family Pet – dummies

Rowland, A. Z.  (2010).  The Complete Book of Traditional Reiki, Practical Methods for Personal and Planetary Healing.  Kindle Edition, Retrieved from Amazon.com

What is Reiki? (nd), The International Center for Reiki Training.  Retrieved from What is Reiki? | Reiki