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Tips for Enjoying the Great Outdoors with Your Canine Companion

by Stephanie M. Colman

Dogs are susceptible to plant-based irritants just as people are. When enjoying the great outdoors with your canine companion, be mindful of your surroundings, taking note of the different species of plants in the area. Discourage your dog from “grazing” along the trail’s edge, as many plants are toxic and can cause a wide range of problems from gastrointestinal disturbances to depression of the central nervous system.

There are literally hundreds of flowers and plants that are toxic to some degree to dogs and cats. The most commonly-found (often in our own backyards!) include:

  • Sago Palm
  • Tulips (bulb)
  • Azaleas
  • Oleander
  • Chrysanthemums
  • Crocus
  • Pothos
  • Lilacs

If your dog likes to stop and sample the flowers, not just smell them, consider installing temporary fencing along lushly-landscaped areas of your backyard throughout his puppyhood and adolescence (or for several months after adopting an older dog) to prevent him from being able to tip-toe through and taste the tulips.

Another bothersome botanical is the Foxtail. The name “foxtail” applies to a variety of grasses that consist of several bushy spikes resembling the tail of a fox. The tip of the foxtail contains a hardened callous that aids in its ability to lodge itself in a dog’s coat or body cavity. While foxtails can enter the body anywhere, the most common points of entry are between the toes, in the nose and ears. Always thoroughly inspect your dogs following nature adventures, especially in areas where foxtails have been seen. Symptoms of foxtail impaction include repeated pawing/licking of the area (for foxtails in the body), sneezing (foxtail in the nose), and head shaking (foxtail in the ear).

Snake Bites and Bee Stings and Spiders, Oh My!
When enjoying the great outdoors with your canine companion, be mindful of the following:

  • Taking the Sting Out of Summer Fun – Due to their curious and playful nature, dogs often enjoy a rousing game of “bite the bee,” that is, until they discover that the bee bites back! It’s best to discourage your dog from snapping at and chasing bees and other flying insects. Be mindful of ants and spiders as well. If bitten, symptoms can range from simple skin irritations to extreme swelling and even anaphylaxis, so keep your vet’s number on hand!
  • Fleas & Ticks – Fleas and ticks are not only an uncomfortable nuisance, they can cause medical problems ranging from flea-allergy dermatitis to Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever; all of which can be contracted by humans as well. For the comfort of all involved, talk to your vet about an appropriate flea and tick prevention program and be sure to examine your pet often, especially after hiking in wooded areas where ticks are common.
  • Snakes – The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are 250 species and sub-species of snakes in the United States. The venomous snakes include rattlesnakes (several varieties), Water Moccasins (Copperhead, Cottonmouth) and coral snakes. Dogs most often become the victims of snake bites while poking their noses where they don’t belong; like down a hole or in a natural crack or crevice. If your dog is bitten by a snake, seek veterinary help immediately! It’s helpful if the vet knows what kind of snake it was, so take note of identifying features: Did it have a rattle or not? Color and pattern? Size?

An Ounce of Prevention!
Prevention is the most effective way to deal with snake bites! Keeping your dog leashed helps keep him out of trouble up ahead. Discourage him from nosing around in holes, woodpiles and other natural coverings. Stay on the trail where snakes are easier to spot, and avoid nighttime hiking, since snakes are nocturnal and are most active when the sun goes down. Also, remember that snakes often turn up in backyards, so be mindful of ways to keep your home turf snake-free.

In some cases, the Rattlesnake vaccine and some type of specific snake avoidance training may be helpful, so talk to your vet and a qualified trainer to determine what’s most appropriate for you and your dog.

Be Mindful of All Creatures – Big and Small!
Dogs will be dogs and will do what dogs do! This often includes running gleefully after small, fast-moving critters such as squirrels, raccoons, gophers, skunks and other such critters. When off-leash, dogs can quickly find themselves out of range of worried owners, and many dogs have become lost or even hit by cars and killed this way. Keep in mind that many rodents and other small animals, while tiny, can put up a big fight with sharp teeth, claws and toxic stink-bombing technology (skunks!), so it’s best to prevent actual close-encounters whenever possible. It’s important to be equally mindful of larger, predatory animals such as coyotes, mountain lions, wildcats and bears, which can easily attack when they feel threatened.

The Many Benefits of Training:
A trained dog is a happy, healthy and safer dog who likely gets to enjoy more freedom when out in the world. When enjoying nature with your canine companion, the following obedience behaviors are extremely helpful, and might even save your dog’s life!

  • Coming When Called – Teach your dog to spin on a dime and enthusiastically race to you whenever he hears a special word. Practice often, reward generously and never, ever punish your dog once he gets to you – no matter how long it took him or what he was doing before he came.
  • Leave It – Help your dog understand that turning away from and ignoring interesting distractions (such as snake/gopher holes or leftover BBQ bones) equals wonderful rewards (praise, petting, treats) from you.
  • Focus on Owner – Training a reliable “Look!” or “Watch!” behavior where your dog looks attentively at you is a wonderful way to prevent him from fixating on the skunk lumbering across the road up ahead!
  • Sit – It’s always great to go back to basics! A reliable sit allows you to give your dog something to do to stay out of trouble. It’s also a great way to help regain his focus and attention around exciting distractions.

With a good dose of training, management and common sense, you and your canine companion will enjoy the dog days of summer for years to come!

Helpful Resources:

ASPCA Poison Control Center: 888-426-4435
ASPCA Toxic and Non-Toxic Plants
ASPCA Common Poisonous Plants
ASPCA Snake Bite Safety and Prevention Tips
ASPCA Dogs Chasing Wildlife
Popular De-Skunking Recipe

About the Author
Stephanie Colman has been training dogs professionally for more than eight years. She teaches a variety of classes for J9’s K9s Dog Training, Inc. in Los Angeles, CA., and recently launched Caninestein Dog Training with the goal of inspiring people to get out and enjoy life with their canine companions in tow. Caninestein specializes in innovative, dog-friendly outings that have included dining with dogs, dogs at the movies and dogs at the theater! A former journalist and public relations executive, she writes regularly about training and behavior on her blog, www.caninestein.blogspot.com. She shares her life with Zoie, a Whippet, and Quiz, a Golden Retriever, and can be reached at StephanieColman@sbcglobal.net.