How’s the weather? It’s shocking!!

I don’t know if you’ve experienced it or not, but I certainly have been zapping myself and on occasion the dogs with static electricity in the past few weeks. So I did a little scientific research on why!

The current dry and windy conditions with low humidity help to generate static electricity.  The air lacks moisture which normally allows static electricity to find a balance.  The charge builds up as the wind passes charged particles over us and when the charge has built up to a high voltage it will make the jump to equalise the charges and you may see it (especially if it’s dark) and hear that little crackle or snap.  The charge tends to build up on things that are good insulators such as skin and fur.

blue metal tool
Photo by Killian Eon on

The voltage in a static shock can range from 4,000 to 35,000 volts, which is about the level we start to feel it, but generally has no current.  So, a static shock may hurt but will not kill you because it has no current.  Lightning is also a form of natural static electricity but much more powerful.

So how does this affect you and your dog?  When you rub your dog’s coat you may find it promotes small static shocks.  These may not be significant enough to cause you or your dog any distress and may be uncomfortable but not harmful.

I’ve found the worst shocks come when you reach out to pet your dog and the charge jumps from your fingertips to your dog’s nose. Ouch!! This might cause both you and your dog to yelp out loud and generally you will move quickly away from each other due to reflexive action (an involuntary response). Why?  To protect the body from harm and the body’s action is to increase distance from that. Even though you love your dog you got zapped!  Most of us and our dogs will recover quickly and we can again enjoy being with them. Some dogs will be more sensitive however and may take some time to recover and may even associate you with pain for a short period.  You may see some avoidance, particularly from an outstretched hand immediately after, so be careful if you have a particularly sensitive or anxious dog.

adorable blur breed close up
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How can you reduce the incidence of static electricity?  You can increase the humidity within your home, up to 40 to 50%, by placing water bowls around the home, use anti-static sheets in a dryer, reduce wearing of synthetic and wool clothing, and wear cotton instead.  Rubber-soled shoes can increase the likelihood of static shock and build up static electricity if you walk across a nylon or wool carpet.  Leather soled shoes are a better option to avoid static shock.  You can also discharge the static by touching something metallic – but you’ll still get a spark!

For your dog you can spray mist their coat or rub them over with a damp cloth before petting them or wet your hands.

Hopefully with these tips we can all have a less shocking time of it during these windy conditions!

Why is my dog growling at strangers?

What is making him growl at strangers?

You may have just picked up a dog from the pound or he’s been surrendered to your rescue group and you’re fostering the dog. The dog seems fine with you but is growling at everyone else in the family. You invited your parents and friends over to meet the dog and he growled at them. A fearful dog that is reluctant to trust strangers will often nip people on the back of their legs as they leave a room or bark and lunge at them and other dogs while on lead. You took him for a walk and he growled at your friends and their dogs in the park. He has also growled at some children playing nearby. Why is he doing this? Shouldn’t he be grateful I rescued him?

It’s all new and uncomfortable

The dog is in a new environment, and he doesn’t know where to go to the toilet. He doesn’t know where he’ll be sleeping. He doesn’t know when or where he’ll be fed next. Most of all he doesn’t know you, your family or anyone else. Nothing is familiar to him.

The dog is fearful that he could potentially be put in a life threatening position at any moment. You know he probably won’t be, but he doesn’t know that, so he needs to be vigilant. Strangers entering the house, who bring unfamiliar scents, sounds and sights also bring unpredictability and exacerbate any instability the dog may feel.  You took him for a walk to an unfamiliar area, strange dogs and scents and he doesn’t know you either. You might be going to dump him there.

Many dogs are insecure or fearful due to a lack of early socialisation in the first 16 weeks of their life. They may not have had exposure to many experiences we take for granted, or met many different people in their life.  They may also be genetically predisposed to be fearful.

Putting it into perspective

Think about when you start a new job, you don’t know many people’s names, where the toilets are, when to take a break, who is friendly and who is not.  You make sure you start on time, you keep your work area tidy, make sure you’re back in time from breaks and listen to what your boss says. You don’t make a lot of noise, you keep quiet and maybe smile and make quick eye contact with some of your new colleagues. As a few weeks go by you start to recognise people and know their names. You’re able to ask how they are and exchange some pleasantries with them. You’re still not talking much but you are starting to know what your job is and becoming a bit more relaxed. Let’s move on three months. Now you know your work colleagues a lot better, you can initiate talking with them, crack some jokes and you may even know their spouse’s name and their children’s name and can ask them about their weekend activities. You are also much more relaxed with your work as you have become familiar with it. You are settled in and feeling quite comfortable.

You probably won’t bite anyone in those first few weeks, but you will probably feel anxious to some degree. While you may not show it at work, this anxiety may leak out at home in various ways, such as you may have difficulty sleeping, you might be short with loved ones or you find concentrating on simple tasks difficult. You may even feel extremely tired all the time or have an increased need to urinate or develop diarrhea. This is anxiety at work, the distress or uneasiness of mind caused by the fear of anticipated real or imagined danger, uncertainty or misfortune. It can happen to dogs too.

The theory

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943 and he used it to describe patterns for which human motivation moves through. The theory is based on two groupings: deficiency needs and growth needs. The first four levels are:

1) Physiological: hunger, thirst, bodily comforts, etc.;

2) Safety/security: out of danger;

3) Belongingness and Love: affiliate with others, be accepted; and

4) Esteem: to achieve, be competent, gain approval and recognition.

What does this have to do with dogs and aggression?

When a dog is displaced from a familiar territory, be it neglected, rehomed or a dog that has been impounded in a shelter for a while, all it is initially interested in is its physiological needs being met, that is, where is the food coming from, where can I sleep safely etc. Once these very basic needs have been met according to the dog’s point of view, not the carer’s or owner’s, it will move up the hierarchy to safety and then on to developing a relationship with others. For some dogs this happens fairly rapidly, within days, for others it can weeks or even months before they begin to trust humans.

As the dog feels safer, is fed and has shelter, only then will you start to see a deeper relationship develop with the owner. Play only happens when all other levels of the hierarchy are fulfilled. This is why some dogs may be slow to play when going into a foster home.

Dogs that continue to show aggression after several weeks in care usually have underlying anxiety, which is inhibiting their learning. For some dogs the use of Dog Appeasing Pheromones (DAP) in a spray or collar can help reduce some of that anxiety. For those that continue to display anxiety, a consult with a vet is advised to discuss any physiological and psychological reasons for the behaviour, with a view to the possible use of medication to assist in reducing anxiety. Medication alone will not solve the issue so a training program should also be followed when the dog is on medication.

So if your foster or newly adopted dog is showing signs of aggression to members of the family or strangers in the home or on the street, it is best to contact a trainer who has experience working with dogs in this situation, who will evaluate and develop a training plan for you and your dog. Look for a trainer who will be respectful to your dog, understanding the dog’s needs and choices and with whom you and your dog will feel safe.


REACTIVE DOGS, STRESS AND THE BRAIN. How do they all tie together?

Stress can affect your brain and actually physically change how it functions.   Prolonged exposure to stress is not good for the brain. It has been shown that neglect and abuse in childhood affect how well the hippocampus functions and how active neural systems are that react to threat. The hippocampus is part of the limbic system and plays a major role in long term memory storage and retrieval and spatial navigation.  The amygdala is another part of the brain that responds to stress. The amygdala is also part of the limbic system and linked to both fear and pleasure responses.

When the amygdala responds to stress or a threat, it triggers the hypothalamus to release a hormone into the bloodstream called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This goes to the adrenal glands, based on the top of the kidneys, and triggers these glands to release another hormone, cortisol.

Cortisol is used as an indicator of when an animal or human is under stress and can be measured through saliva or blood. The hippocampus has cortisol receptors that allow the animal to regulate the stress response. Too much stress can damage the hippocampus, causing it shrink.   This can’t be reversed. Stress can also cause part of the amygdala to respond abnormally, causing nerve cells to create more branches, making it over-reactive.

Image-showing-the-Hippocampus-in-the-human-brainThis is relevant to “reactive aggression” which is seen in humans and other animals. It is all part of the “fight or flight” self-defence system. The signal to show reactive aggression comes from both the amygdala and from areas of the frontal cortex, which has the ability to put the brakes on, to enable self-regulation and inhibition, or release the brakes to launch an attack against a perceived threat.

Reactive aggression could happen because the amygdala is overactive (during anxiety/depression or due to prolonged exposure to early stress or genetic reasons) and/or because the prefrontal cortex is under-active (unable to inhibit reactive aggression).

So how does this tie in with dogs?  If your dog has been exposed to continued high levels of stress over a period of time, his brain may have been actually altered by this stress.  They may not have the ability to self-inhibit their reactions when under stress.  Sometimes trainers see dogs that no matter what training protocols we use, there is little change in their behaviour and they continue to be reactive.  Consultation with a vet or vet behaviourist should be considered when a dog is not learning or changing behaviour despite consistent application of behaviour modification.  As medication takes effect, teaching coping strategies for the dogs and their owners and reducing stress overall, can assist most dogs to integrate into a more normal life.

Baren-Cohen, S. (2012). Zero degress of empathy. London, England: Penguin Books

Phelps, J.R., (2014, December). Memory, learning, and emotion: The hippocampus. Retrieved from

Sargis, R.M., (2015, August). An overview of the adrenal glands. Beyond flight or fight Retrieved from

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