The road before we get Harley!

  By: Jason Coe, DVM, PhD
Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada

       January 25, 2018


Ten years ago, my wife Genny and I began looking into getting a dog.  The timing seemed to be right as we were a double income couple with no kids.  We had also just moved from a small apartment in Ottawa to our own house in Guelph. The reason we were looking for a dog was, quite simply, because Genny is allergic to cats! The timing and situation seemed perfect, yet shortly after starting our search for a dog we learned that our double income no kid life style was about to change: we were expecting our first child.  We had a serious discussion about whether it was still the right time to bring a dog into our household. A baby was on the way, both of us were in the early stages of building our careers and we really did not know what lay ahead.  At the time, we made a conscious decision that it would probably be wise to make one major change/ addition to our family at a time. 

Now looking back, we are very happy with the choice we made because two years after Carter was born, our daughter Mackenzie arrived … two years later our second daughter Georgia arrived.  We were suddenly a family of five including a four-year old, a two-year old and a newborn.  It did not take Genny and me a lot of discussion or persuasion to decide that it was not the right time to bring a dog into our home. Let’s be honest, we still had two children in diapers at that point and we were not looking to do any more potty training than we already had ahead of us!  We also felt it would be unfair to bring a dog into a family that was already stretched to meet its current demands.

As our kids started to grow and mature, Genny and I regularly revisited whether the time was right to bring a four-legged addition into our home.  However, both of our careers continued to get busier, including me travelling away from home once or twice a month.  This often left Genny on her own with three young kids; she was very happy it was not three kids and a dog. This does not mean we did not have constant pressure on us to get a dog.   As our kids grew older the pressure from them grew with arguments like “Grandma and Grandpa have a dog”, “Nana has a dog”, “our cousins have a dog”, “EVERYONE else at school has a pet!”, “Why don’t we have a pet?”, “You’re a veterinarian; how can you not have a pet?”.  Specifically, our son’s intense and consistent pressure did not change our family circumstances for getting a dog. 

Carter's contract he made - "Do you agree that I can have a puppy if I take all responsibility over the puppy except the money parts" 

In response to our son’s insistent requests, last Christmas Santa brought him a robotic cat and this past Christmas he got a gold fish.  The reality was our family was not yet ready.   

More recently Genny and I started having discussions that were not quickly dismissed by one or both of us about getting a dog for our family.  We agreed that we have reached a point as a family where with proper planning and education we feel comfortable and excited to bring a dog into our home.  As a result, we have been encouraging our kids that if we are to get a dog we need to be prepared and educate ourselves.  Each of them, in one capacity or another, has started accessing the B4 U GET A PET website. 

The girls researching before we get a pet

My son has been using it to prepare himself for over a year and has gotten to a point where he can now answer every question correctly on the Test your pet knowledge on the dog page. 

Three days before Christmas Genny and I made our first trip to a breeder of our choosing in order to ask all of the questions from the Questions to ask page specific to breeders.  Everything checked out to our satisfaction and we made plans to move forward in bringing one of the seven cute puppies we saw on that day home in a few weeks.   During our second visit to the breeder we selected our puppy from the three boys, specifically looking for a puppy that was a bit laid back and that did not fight or fuss when cuddled (yes, we have travelled to the breeders twice already and not even brought a puppy home!). While I drove on our second trip, Genny signed him up for puppy socialization  classes that will start immediately after he arrives.  We also started researching veterinary clinics in our area knowing this will be another big decision soon after bringing our dog home as he will need 12-week and 16-week checkups and vaccines. 

One question I have received is why a puppy?  Genny and I have discussed this question and with young children we want to be involved in our dog’s important socialization period.  The B4 U GET A PET research team has just published work highlighting the importance of socializing puppies.  I found we also had many of the same questions other potential pet owners have before getting a pet, such as wanting to know about past history, past behaviour, etc.  For these reasons, and given our young family, we have chosen to get a puppy, which we have named Harley (The reason behind this name I will save for another blog!).

Although our kids are not aware (though we have ensured they have been doing lots of prep work!), we are extremely excited to have Harley join our family next week! Therefore, in keeping with our preparation, tonight’s task is to start researching pet insurance! 


 Harley at 4 weeks of age!


By: Dr. Janet Cutler, PhD, CPDT-KA
      Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada
      Landmark Behaviour Inc

      December 15, 2017



When you get a young puppy, it is very important to make sure that they are properly socialized, or have positive experiences with many people, dogs, other animals, as well as different environments and noises.

New research at the University of Guelph has shown that people that have gone to puppy classes with their puppies see many benefits. At four months of age, puppies that had gone to puppy classes were more socialized, showed less fear to noises such as thunder and vacuums, and were less fearful of crate training. Owners that had attended classes with their puppies also reported to use methods of training considered to be more positive, such as redirecting their dog or only rewarding correct behaviour, as opposed to yelling or holding their puppies down on their backs for punishment.

Puppy classes not only help you teach your puppy some basic manners, but also give you an opportunity to socialize your puppy. Since this is such an important period of time for your puppy, you want to make sure that the puppy class you are taking your puppy to is helping to set you up for success.

To help you find the right class for your puppy, you should talk to the school or the instructor about the following things.

What to look for in a puppy class:

1.     Is there supervised puppy play time?
It is sometimes hard to find time for your puppy to play with others their age.  Puppy classes typically offer this opportunity and allow your puppy to learn how to play with other dogs in a safe manner.  However, you do not want class puppy play time to be unsupervised where they are allowed to run around out of control.  Play time should be in short, structured periods throughout the class.

2.    Is there plenty of handling and interactions with other people?
Getting your puppy used to being handled by other people is very helpful.  They learn to be calm when being handled, get used to unfamiliar people, and it can even help with vet visits since they will be more comfortable with handling by strangers.

3.    What kind of training is included in classes?

A majority of puppy classes have a training component, including working on sit, down, stay, loose leash walking, recalls (coming when called) and others.  Even if you are comfortable teaching your puppy these things, working on them in a new environment will just help to strengthen them.

Just as important as the behaviour taught is the method used to train. You want to find classes that use positive reinforcement, or giving treats, praise, play, or another reward for the behaviour you want.  This helps to build a strong bond between you and your dog, and lets them know when they have done the right thing.

4.    Will they offer help with any problems you are having?

If you are having any problems at home with your puppy, your instructor should be able to offer suggestions to help you work through them, ensure that they do not become more serious, and be able to refer you to someone that can help if they arenot able to.

5.    Do the instructors have certifications and/or education in behaviour?

Making sure that your trainer is up-to-date on the best methods for training and continues to learn about dog behaviour is important. Researching certifications in the dog training field allow you to be informed about the knowledge and experience of your trainer.  Some certification bodies require certain amounts of experience, continuing education, and compliance with a standard of ethics.

6.    Do they require proof of vaccination?
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) recommends that puppies have at least one set of vaccinations 7 days prior to a puppy’s first class as well as deworming.  Your puppy class facility should require proof of vaccine to ensure safety of all the puppies in the class.

7.    Do they allow your whole family to attend?
Some facilities will allow children and others involved with your puppy to attend classes.  If you are hoping to bring your children, make sure you check first to see if the facility is set up to have children come in and participate safely.

Finding a good puppy class that allows you and your puppy to learn together while allowing you to socialize your puppy will set you up for success.

5 suggestions for starting your puppy off on the right foot

  By: Justine Antunes, BSc
        3rd year Student Veterinarian, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada

  March 23, 2017

Bringing a new puppy home is an incredibly exciting experience, whether it's your first puppy or your fifth. Two years ago, I made the decision to finally welcome a fluffy bundle of joy into my life, my Golden Retriever, Ellie, and I've never looked back. But with all the stress of house training, puppy proofing, and teaching basic commands, many owners are unaware of another aspect of puppy development that is equally important: socialization and habituation.

Socialization is the process in which pets develop relationships with animals of their own kind and with other kinds of animals. Habituation is when an animal is exposed to an object or an environment often to help familiarize them to the situation. Both socialization and habituation are incredibly important in allowing a puppy to develop into a well-rounded adult. The critical period for socialization and habituation falls between 3 and 14 weeks of age. Prevention is the best medicine, and with proper social development early in life, many undesirable adult behaviours can be avoided.

When planning on bringing a new puppy into your family (congratulations, by the way!), keep in mind these 5 suggestions for socialization and habituation:

  1. Avoid inappropriate interactions

    Make sure every exposure to something new is a positive one. Provide many treats, use positive phrases, and reward with play. Avoid introducing your puppy to potentially aggressive animals, or putting them in any situations that may be overwhelming.

  2. Safely introduce them to a variety of people and animals

    Puppies need to learn how to interact properly with other dogs, as well as other animals and humans. By introducing puppies to people of different genders, appearances, ages, etc., as well as dogs and cats of different breeds, they will learn how to interact appropriately with them. Attending puppy socialization classes or visiting friends and relatives with pets are great ways to get the ball rolling!

  3. Introduce them to a variety of objects and environments

    Different sights, sounds, and smells that are AND are not commonly encountered in the household are important to consider when habituating your young puppy. By providing good experiences with new environments, you can create a less fearful adult dog. Take leash walks through different neighbourhoods, introduce them to stairs if you live in a bungalow, anything that they could experience at some point in life!

  4. Get them used to the vet!

    Many pets are afraid of the vet and for good reason: they're taken to an unfamiliar environment with many smells, placed on unfamiliar tables, and touched in unfamiliar ways. Make routine visits to the vet early to get your puppy used to being on the scale and lifted onto tables. At home, frequently touch their feet to simulate nail trims, and look in their mouth and eyes like they were getting a physical exam, all while providing them with treats, of course!

  5. Continue exposure as the puppy grows

    Although most socialization and habituation of puppies should take place before 14 weeks of age, it is equally important to continue exposing your puppy to new people and environments as they grow and develop. This continued socialization is important in maintaining the positive social relationships that they formed when they were younger.

Being a student veterinarian provided me with many opportunities to introduce Ellie to new people, animals, and environments. She's had many physical exams practiced on her, met many dogs and cats thanks to being in a class full of pet parents, and met many new people (who can resist a puppy snuggle during exams?) throughout her young days. I'd like to think she's a well-rounded adult now; however, there's always socializing and habituating to be done post-puppyhood! Next up: getting her used to elevators.


Landsberg, G., Ackerman, L., and Hunthausen, W.L. (2012). Behavioural problems of the dog and cat. Oxford: Saunders.

Peterson, M.E., and Kutzler, M. (2011). Small animal pediatrics. St. Louis, MO: Saunders/Elsevier.


  By: Hannah Flint, BSc, MSc, PhD (Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare) 

        Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON


August 2, 2017

Dealing with a fearful dog can be an incredibly stressful experience. Living with my fearful and anxious dog Ripley for the past four years, I understand the challenges involved. Even after completing my PhD looking at fear and aggression in dogs, I still sometimes feel overwhelmed. Below are some tips for how to first recognize if your dog is fearful, and then some basic tips on how to overcome it.

Dogs have many ways of showing that they are fearful or stressed. Here a few of the more common and easily recognized signs

  • Posture: fearful dogs will often try to make themselves appear smaller. Dogs experiencing extreme fear bend their legs into a crouched or cowering posture, while dogs experiencing milder levels of fear may appear standing upright with only an arch to their back as seen in the picture below.

  • Ear position: dogs that experience fear or stress will often pull their ears back against their head.
  • Tail position: a fearful dog will have the tail lowered to hang straight down between the back legs, or if experiencing more extreme fear the tail may be tucked up towards the dog's belly. A wagging tail should not be used to judge a dog’s mood! Fearful dogs will often wag their tail even when it is tucked.
  • Trembling: while not always visible, you may feel a dog that is experiencing fear tremble when you touch them.
  • Panting: a dog that is panting when not over-heated or exercised is likely stressed.
  • Lip licking: dogs may lick their lips when afraid, especially when intimidated by a strange person or dog.
  • Avoidance: any attempts to hide, escape or avoid a situation should be taken as a sign of fear. Many dogs who appear to be stubborn by refusing to walk are actually afraid. Pay attention to your surroundings and try to look for patterns for when this is happening to see if you can identify what your dog is afraid of.
  • Food refusal: if your dog suddenly stops accepting treats (or any other rewarding activity such as petting or play) this is a common sign that your dog is overwhelmed by fear, or another emotion.
  • Displacement behaviours: these behaviours, such as sniffing, pacing and yawning, while normal in some contexts, can become abnormally frequent when your dog is afraid. If your dog suddenly starts obsessively sniffing the ground, or performing other abnormal behaviour, you should consider that there is something making your dog uncomfortable.
  • Vocalizing: whining is a sign of fear, and is the vocalization most commonly thought to relate to fear in dogs, but barking can also be an indicator of fear. Dogs, and most especially puppies, often bark at things that they are afraid of.

What to do:

One common myth is that you should not comfort a fearful dog, because you will reinforce their behaviour. This is not the case! Fear is an emotional response, and if addressed the behaviours associated with it will also disappear. Sometimes in situations where your dog is afraid and you cannot remove the thing that is causing their fear (e.g., during a thunderstorm) the best thing you can do is comfort your dog.

Below are five important steps for addressing fear in dogs:

1. Identify that your dog is fearful and what is causing the fear, pay attention to your dog’s behaviour and your surroundings! Keep track of when your dog acts afraid and what else is going on, and be specific. If your dog is afraid of other dogs is it just large dogs? Small dogs? Black dogs? A certain breed? The more information you know the better you will be able to anticipate your dog’s reaction.

2. Stay calm! While it is okay to comfort your dog, it should also be noted that fear can be contagious. Try not to get stressed out because your dog is upset. If you do, remember to take deep breathes, and speak in a slow calm voice so as not to feed into your dog’s fear.

3. Remove your dog from the situation, if possible, always prevent or minimize situations that cause your dog fear. Generally, repeated exposure to a situation does not teach your dog to be less afraid, but instead their reactions may get worse over time. If you can’t escape the situation, such as with dogs that are afraid of thunderstorms or fireworks, try to give them a safe space to escape to, or distract them with a fun game or food.

4. Desensitize and/or counter-condition. Desensitization refers to the process of gradually exposing your dog to a less intense version of the thing he fears, in such a way that his reaction is not triggered (e.g., playing the sound of fireworks quietly, then gradually increasing the volume over a series of days).

Counter-conditioning refers to the process of creating a positive reaction to something he once feared by associating the feared thing with something good (e.g., giving treats every time the dog sees a bicycle, so that eventually, instead of reacting, the dog gets excited to receive treats whenever he sees a bicycle).

With time and patience, the combination of these two methods can alleviate most fears.

5. Ask for help! If the above steps are not working, or your dog shows extreme levels of fear, contact a certified dog behavior professional (e.g., DACVB, CAAB, IAABC, CCBC). Professionals can provide an extra set of eyes in evaluating your dog’s behavior, come up with targeted training plans, and discuss the possibility of treating with medications

For more references on fear in dogs see the following links:



Things to consider before getting a pet rabbit

  By: Dr. Debbie Hrynkiw, DVM
        Owner, Black Creek Animal Hospital, Acton, ON, Canada

  February 14, 2017

At my veterinary hospital, we regularly see pet rabbits and rabbits from Rabbit Rescue, a rescue organization serving southern Ontario. One of my favourite parts about seeing bunnies is helping people understand how to care for them so they can live happy and healthy lives. If you are thinking about adopting a pet rabbit, there are some things to consider first. Below, see some factors to help you decide whether a rabbit is the right pet for you.

Is a bunny a good fit for your family?

  • Bunnies require a lot of care. Their cages need to be cleaned daily, they need to be fed at least twice daily, and they require a lot of exercise and mental stimulation.
  • Many bunnies do not like to be picked up.
  • Bunnies have delicate bones compared to their muscle mass, making careful handling to avoid bone fractures important.
  • If not held securely, bunnies can violently kick and break their back.
  • A bunny is a longterm commitment with a life span of approximately 9-10 years. Some live up to 12 years.
  • Bunnies are most active in the morning and evening hours.

If you have decided a pet bunny is right for you and your family, please read further to find more information on:

  1. Where to adopt from
  2. Housing pet rabbits
  3. Litter training pet rabbits
  4. Nutritional needs
  5. Grooming needs
  6. Veterinary care for pet rabbits

1. Where to adopt from?

  • There are many bunnies looking for homes. Sadly, many bunnies are dumped outside when they are no longer wanted. Domesticated rabbits do not survive well in the wild. 
  • It's important to be proactive when searching for a pet rabbit. The questions to ask the sources you're considering for a pet rabbit will be similar to those you would ask when getting a dog or cat. Please check out these dog and cat pages on questions to ask animal sources (e.g., breeder, animal shelters and rescues, pet stores, etc.). Asking these questions will help you make an informed decision about the animal source you're considering and give you a better understanding of the type of care they provide their animals.

2. Housing

  • A pet rabbit's house should be large enough for a litter box, an area for eating, and an area for sleep/play. The height of the cage should allow the bunny to comfortably stand up.
  • The cage bottom should be a solid surface as wires can cause sore and infected feet.
  • Large cages can be quite expensive but if you are crafty, great bunny condos can be inexpensively built using storage cubes.
  • Bunnies require a lot of exercise to promote gastrointestinal and urinary tract health.
    • Bunnies enjoy free time out of their cage but the house must be bunny proofed. Bunnies love to chew and dig. The most common household hazards to pet rabbits are poisonous plants and electrical wires.
    • An exercise pen can be a safe alternative to a bunny being free in the house.
  • Regular cleaning of the cage and litter box is very important; so the door of the cage needs to be large enough to easily remove the litter pan for cleaning.
  • Poor housing hygiene can cause issues with a bunny's respiratory tract and feet.

3. Litter training

  • Bunnies are usually easily litter trained.
  • They tend to urinate/defecate in the same location. If the litter pan is placed in this location with their hay close by, they will often jump in the litter to eat and then start using their litter box.
  • The litter material must be safe if ingested. Recycled newspaper pellets or a soft recycled paper material are good options. You can get both of these from pet stores.
  • If a bunny is not spayed or neutered, litter training can be difficult.

4. Nutrition

  • Diet is one of the most important factors in a pet rabbit's health.
  • The main portion of a bunny's diet should be hay. They need hay to keep their teeth and intestinal tract healthy.
  • Only a small portion of the diet should be pellets. Muesli-type pellets should be avoided.
    • The rule of thumb is 1/4 cup of pellets for a 5 lb bunny. If a bunny fills up on pellets, they tend to eat less hay, which is so important for their overall health. Make sure your rabbit is eating plenty of hay!
  • A bunny should eat a variety of greens daily. About 2 cups should be fed.
  • Only feed a very small amount of sugary treats 2-3 times weekly. Remember the size of the bunny in comparison to the treat size.
    • A pet rabbit eating one full carrot is like us eating a party-size pizza! Yes, carrots are considered a sugary treat.

5. Grooming

  • Bunnies shed their fur at certain times of the year. This is called moulting. Brushing can help with the shedding.
  • Some long-haired bunnies, like Angoras, need intensive brushing to keep their fur mat-free.
  • Regular nail trims are needed. Every bunny is different; how often they need their nails trimmed depends on the surface they run on. Most pet rabbits require trims every 3-6 weeks.
  • Long nails can cause discomfort and have the risk of becoming caught on objects.

6. Veterinary care

  • All bunnies should be spayed or neutered.
    • Cancer of the reproductive tract is common
    • Spaying/neutering usually makes bunnies more calm, less aggressive, and will help with litter training.
  • Bunnies require regular check ups by a veterinarian to detect health issues early.
  • Bunnies will often hide their illnesses because they are prey animals. Once you see signs of illness, they need to be seen by a veterinarian right away.

Good websites to visit for bunny information or if you are looking to adopt a bunny include:

House Rabbit Society
Rabbit Rescue


Quensenberry, K.E., and Carpenter, J.W. (2012). Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents Clinical Medicine and Surgery, 157-192.