6 ways to keep your barn dog healthy and happy

A barn dog doesn’t ask for much more than room to run and the opportunity to roll in a mud puddle or two, but there are 6 things you can do to keep him happy and healthy.
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In most ways, barn dogs require the same care as house, hunting or show dogs: a suitable diet, annual veterinary exams, vaccinations, deworming and protection from fleas, ticks and insects. But life around horses means exposure to a particular set of hazards and situations that can have an impact on a dog’s health and happiness. Here are 6 things you can do to make sure your barn dog stays healthy and vigorous for years to come.

1. Keep toxins out of reach. For many dogs, “Eat first, ask questions later” is a way of life. Unfortunately, the freewheeling lifestyle of barn dogs can enable them to ingest toxic substances without anyone noticing until it’s too late.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), over-the-counter drugs, including supplements, and human prescription medications were the top two categories of calls made to its Animal Poison Control Center in 2015, accounting for well over 50,000 cases. Other categories in the top 10 list included insecticides and rodenticides and household items such as cleansers and paint. Considering all the medications, cleaners and chemicals kept around horses, it’s clear that this risk is heightened for barn dogs.

The fix is simple: Store all medications, equine and otherwise, as well as chemicals and other potential toxins, out of reach of dogs. The deworming drug ivermectin poses a particular risk to collies and many other herding breeds because they have a genetic mutation that allows the chemical to cross the blood-brain barrier and lead to fatal neurological disease. So, in addition to storing ivermectin in a closed cabinet out of reach, be careful when you deworm the horses; a dropped blob of paste licked up by a dog can be enough to kill. Likewise, keep all cleaners and chemicals safely stored---closed, original containers in a separate storage shed is the safest option. Finally, rodenticide is a notoriously deadly toxin for dogs. Rodent control in a barn setting is best handled with rat poisons that are safe for dogs, traps, cats or snakes.

2. Give him some ID. While most barn dogs tend to be good about sticking close to their territory, some are known to wander or lose their way while chasing a deer or a good scent. Even if he’s not lost, a roaming dog may be picked up by a well-meaning neighbor and assumed to be a stray. Only about 26 percent of dogs who enter shelters are reunited with their owners, according to the ASPCA. Engraved ID tags or embroidered nylon collars that display your phone number are a good way to make sure someone who finds your dog can get in touch with you, but collars can be lost or removed.

A microchip---a transponder about the size of a grain of rice that can be implanted under the skin---offers permanent, unalterable identification. Shelters and veterinary offices now commonly scan all strays, and according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 74.1 percent of dogs with microchips who enter shelters are returned to their owners. Be sure to keep your contact information in the microchip company’s database up-to-date.

3. Keep an eye on his joints. A lifetime of patrolling the aisle way and chasing cats can take its toll on your barn dog’s joints. Just as in horses, it’s not uncommon for an older dog to develop some degree of arthritis, but it’s usually easily managed.

Supplements that contain glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate may be helpful: A 2007 study published in The Veterinary Journal found that dogs with osteoarthritis who were given supplements with these ingredients showed less pain, greater weight-bearing and more mobility after 70 days. Check with your veterinarian, however, before starting your dog on a supplement. Stiffness that looks like arthritis might stem from injury, neurological issues or other problems that require different treatments. Of course, do not give your dog supplements that were formulated for people or other animal species. Not only might your dog be missing out on the appropriate dosages of the glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, but some products may contain additional ingredients that are toxic to dogs.

If supplements alone aren’t keeping your arthritic barn dog comfortable, talk to your veterinarian about medications that might be helpful. But resist the urge to give your dog smaller doses of human drugs. Dogs are very sensitive to many common human medications and can develop serious side effects. A far safer option is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication made specifically to manage joint pain in dogs.

4. Provide ready access to water. At the barn it may be harder than you think for your dog to find fresh, clean water to drink: Troughs and buckets may be inaccessible because of fences or stall doors, or they may be too high off the ground for a dog to reach. So keep a water bowl at the barn for your dog, and if you’re heading out on the trail take a collapsible container so you can offer him a drink as you go.

5Train for safety. Obedience training is good for any dog, but it’s especially important for barn dogs because they typically have more freedom than the average canine---and thus have more opportunity for mischief. In addition to “sit,” “stay” and “come” commands, make sure your barn dog knows “leave it,” so you can tell him to ignore whatever he is investigating, and “drop it,” so he’ll immediately let go of what he’s holding in his mouth. The command “out” to leave an arena or other space (such as a stall) is also particularly useful around a barn.

6. Provide a place for him to relax. Most barn dogs enjoy being in the thick of activity and rarely stop to rest, but an older or more reserved dog might benefit from having a quiet area at the barn where he can physically and mentally recharge over the course of a busy day. You don’t need an official doghouse or kennel space, though. Simply having a corner of a tack or feed room set up with a water bowl and blanket or bed can provide a safe and comfortable retreat. Just be sure you regularly wash any bedding and sweep out the area, lest it become a haven for fleas and rodents in addition to your dog. 

This article first appeared in the May 2017 issue (#476) of EQUUS magazine