Algae poses threat to humans as well as animals

Health departments have been trying to inform swimmers and pet owners that they should avoid water with visible algae, since ingesting it can cause severe and sudden illness including convulsions or even death. In our state, three dogs died last year after swimming at a reservoir. One died before his owner could even get him to the car, another died on the way to the vet.

Now, a recent report in the ProMED health tracking network calls our attention to human risks that don’t involved either entering or drinking the algae-contaminated water.

One man, whose dog died after a swim in the lake, was hospitalized last week [week of 19 Jul 2010] after he gave the dog a bath. Within days, the 43-year-old man began having trouble walking and lost
feeling in his arms and feet.

“We weren’t swimming in the lake because it’s disgusting,” said the
victim’s wife, whose husband, is still having trouble with memory loss and fatigue. “Our dog was just covered in that sludge, and my husband washed him.” Washington Examiner, July 30, 2010.

According to one doctor treating the Ohio man, his neurological problems may be permanent. But he’s better off than his dog, who died despite having the algae washed off.

The algae are in the “blue-green algae” family, and are actually not algae but photosynthesizing bacteria, called cyanobacteria. Blooms, or overgrowths, in bodies of water (fresh or saltwater) are encouraged by temperature change and increases in nutrients, often from agricultural runoff into the water. The cyanobacteria, like some algae, make toxins harmful to fish and mammals. Humans have been aware of this mostly through being poisoned by eating shellfish, which concentrate the toxins. The familiar warnings about “red tides” and issuance of “shellfish advisories” result from these conditions.

While it has been known that skin contact with toxic algae could produce illness in humans, the severe results from relatively small exposure—simply washing an algae-slimed dog—seem to be worse than expected.

The lake in Ohio is Grand Lake St. Marys; it’s the largest inland lake in the state by area, but is extremely shallow, with an average depth of only 5 to 7 feet. This shallow lake warms up more, and doesn’t dilute the runoff of agricultural fertilizer and livestock waste as much as if it held more water. Recent algae blooms have killed so many catfish that crews were shovelling up the dead fish. With the lake surrounded by warning signs, the area’s $160 million tourism industry has declined, and a boat race that draws about 30,000 people in late August each year has been cancelled.

Some algae are harmless, but there are many different algae or bacteria that can produce dangerous levels of toxins when they bloom. Some are more harmful than others but it’s foolish to take chances: keep yourself, and children and pets, well away from any water that has a visible algae presence. This can be greenish, reddish, or other colors. Or it can appear as just cloudiness or discoloration in the water, as foam or scum floating on top, as mats on the bottom, or actual filaments or pellets. And don’t let kids or pets wander to areas of a river, stream, or lake that you have not closely checked.

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Source.

An Ohio factsheet sums up the methods of exposure, and known symptoms:

Skin contact: Contact with the skin may cause rashes, hives, or skin blisters (especially on the lips and under swimsuits).

Breathing of water droplets: Breathing aerosolizing (suspended water droplets-mist) from the lake water-related recreational activities and/or lawn irrigation can cause runny eyes and noses, a sore throat, asthma-like symptoms, or allergic reactions.

Swallowing water: Swallowing HAB-contaminated water can cause:
◦ Acute (immediate), severe diarrhea and vomiting
◦ Liver toxicity (abnormal liver function, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting)
◦ Kidney toxicity
◦ Neurotoxicity (weakness, salivation, tingly fingers, numbness, dizziness, difficulties breathing, death)   Source.

Splashing of water in eyes, or inhaling droplets of contaminated water, can get the toxin into your system. One of the toxins from cyanobacteria, Saxitoxin is “reportedly one of the most toxic, non-protein substances known. It is known that the LD50 (median lethal dose) in mice is 8 micrograms/kilogram. Based on
a human weighing approx. 70 kg (154 lb), a lethal dose would be a
single dose of 0.2 mg.” [Source, ProMED report.]

How much is two-tenths of a milligram? There are a thousand milligrams in a gram, and a dime or a paper clip each weigh about 1 gram. So an amount of toxin weighing the same as two ten-thousandths of a paper clip may be lethal.

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Source.

These “Harmful Algal Blooms” can occur in large or small bodies of water; often, but not always, they are in areas where the waterflow is slow (near shore) or nonexistent (stagnant). Small pools or puddles separate from the main body of water can contain algal growth. Even in tiny amounts the toxins can have devastating and sudden effects of humans or animals.

Eating fish or shellfish from contaminated waters is dangerous too. Cooking does NOT render toxins safe.

Algal blooms can be very transient, appearing and disappearing in a matter of days to weeks. If you spot a possible instance and there are no warning signs, it may not have been found yet. Stay away from the water and call your local or state health department so they can track outbreaks, and put up signs.

For the state of Oregon, current advisories can be found online here. The HAB team can be reached by email at Hab.health@state.or.us, by phone: 971-673-0440; Toll Free: 877-290-6767; or by fax: 971-673-0457. Other states should have similar programs; your city or county health department ought to be able to tell you more.

Why are these toxic algae blooms becoming more common?

The short answer is, better growing conditions for algae. They thrive in warm water, and temperatures are going up. Nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from human activities pour into streams, lakes, rivers, and the ocean, and act like Miracle-Gro for the algae. Sources include runoff from fields treated with fertilizer or manure, spraying partially treated sewage sludge, sewage overflows, and runoff from pastures.

What can be done?

Rising temperatures, that’s a big one. Let’s just look at eutrophication or over-nutrification of water, since that’s something where local efforts can have relatively immediate local effects. Obviously, better treatment of sewage (including livestock waste) and reduced use of fertilizers (in agriculture, on golf courses, in parks, and in our own personal yards) are important steps to work on. On July 1st, 16 states will begin enforcing laws that require dishwasher detergents to be almost phosphate-free. That’s a small but significant improvement; the legislator who introduced the bill into the Pennsylvania legislature estimated that 7% to 12% of the phosphorus entering sewage plants came from automatic dishwashing detergents. New guidelines from the federal Clean Water Act to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus have provided more impetus to these particular efforts.

Not so obvious steps:

At least one study found that use of organic fertilizers led to less nitrogen runoff than use of chemical fertilizers.

Remediation of areas where nitrogen is stored in soil, from decades of deposition by one means or another, is possible but expensive and slow.

And years of research is showing us, surprise surprise, that intact aquatic communities slow the trickle-down of nutrient pollution (from, say, creeks to streams to rivers to a lake) and seem to enable a body of water to better resist eutrophication. Dr. David Schindler (Professor of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta) has studied the problem for decades including 37 years of work on Lake 227, a small pristine lake in the Experimental Lakes region of northern Ontario. He says, for example, that overexploitation of piscivorous (fish-eating) fish seems to increase the effects of eutrophication. (His earlier work energized the campaign to reduce phosphorus pollution.)

A study along the Georgia coast suggests that tidal marsh soils protect aquatic ecosystems from eutrophication, caused by the accumulation of nutrients. And they sequester large amounts of carbon, helping us slow down climate change. I would expect similar results with regard to freshwater wetlands and marshes. When I was a zookeeper I worked with mechanical incubators for bird eggs, none of which was as reliable as one of those “bird-brained” hens of whatever species. We are told that the appropriate native herbivores—bison, wildebeest, and so on—produce more meat per acre and do less damage than introduced species like cattle. And now we’re coming around to seeing that oldmothernature is better at water purification than we are, if we leave existing systems intact (but we never do).

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Salt Marsh near Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; more good photos of this marsh here.

Fox vs. dog, no contest

We were walking down a gravel road when, perhaps a hundred yards ahead of us, a grey fox crossed the road at a dead run, from a brushy area on the left of the road to a wooded area on the right side. The wooded area wasn’t very big; at its edge a long open grassy stretch began and continued to where we stood, and beyond.

Our mastiff Jack was off down the road instantly, turning into the woods where the fox had gone. Like us, he thought the fox would prefer the cover of the forest, or perhaps keep going away from the road, through the wooded area and up the steep brushy slope at the back.

Not so: while Jack remained in the woods sniffing around, here came the fox out of the trees and down the long open strip paralleling the road. He was completely exposed, and heading right toward us. Maybe he’d zigged and zagged a bit after entering the woods, to give Jack some scent to follow, but very soon he’d made a hard right to leave the confined area for a place where he could gain a lot of yardage on his pursuer.

By the time Jack followed his nose and reached the grassy area, the fox was long gone past us and out of sight; our exhilarated dog ran after him quite a ways before giving up. Then he came back to the woods to snuff up that interesting smell some more. I can imagine his satisfaction: finally, he had a visual sighting to go with one of the mysterious smells he’s found on our walks. And the fox, well, he proved his legendary cleverness once again.

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Photo by dbriz

Ice structures on leaves

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It’s been a bit colder here than usual the past few days, with night-time lows in the high teens and freezing fog some nights. Yesterday Jack the mastiff and I walked up Star Gulch Road, which goes along a stream with several private gold-panning claims on it. But it was way too cold for panning!

Nights of heavy frost had enrobed the vegetation in dense but delicate icy structures.

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Jack and I each pursued our personal obsessions. His are: following wherever I go but arriving there first, and of course sniffing around the woods to see what creatures have been there. Mine, that morning, were: walking fast enough to stay warm, interspersed with stopping and kneeling to take photos. Jack probably thinks the camera is some sort of mechanized human sniffer when I put it up close to things. Well, he’s right, in a way. I’m afraid I do see more when I take the camera, and certainly the camera remembers things better than I can.

Sometimes Jack responds oddly to objects; a statue of a horse or animal is approached cautiously and sniffed at full extension, ready to leap away. On this walk he saw a large wooden “Put out your campfire” sign, on 2 wooden posts, and reacted as if it were some strange beast. He barked at it until we got up to it then very carefully checked it out. Well, if it had been an animal it would have been quite a big one, easily six feet tall with legs made of four by fours, so I guess I understand his caution if not his failure to discern its true nature. Or, maybe it was really some entish thing just pretending to be a sign . . . you never know.

Giving pills to dogs: a small but useful trick

You’ve found the food that works best for hiding pills and you think you’re headed for success, getting these pills into your dog. But then the rascal rolls the food-ball around in his mouth, feels the pill, and spits it out. Now he’s suspicious!

Here’s a trick that has worked for us. Make at least two treats without pills. Give one of these first, then give one with a pill in it. Strike a balance between covering the pill adequately, and making the treat so large it isn’t gulped right down. At each point, allow the dog to see that you have additional yummy bites waiting for him; he’ll be less inclined to take his time, more willing to bolt down each treat in order to get the next one. Give a treat without a pill as the last one. If your dog is really suspicious, and you have more than one pill to give, you may want to alternate: plain, pill, plain, pill, plain.

Cheese is our usual cover for pills, and the best thing we’ve found, actually, is that spray-on cheese, the new version of Cheez Wiz. Put pill in the palm of your hand, squirt on the cheese-like substance (get some under the pill too) and watch your dog go for it. Here too it helps to use plain cheese-blobs as the lead-in, and keep your dog anticipating the next one so he’s keen.

But with the method I’ve described, we have successfully pilled even suspicious dogs with pills smushed between slices of cheddar or wrapped in a piece of lunch meat.

Animals encourage us to slow down

Jack the mastiff came with me today for my volunteer time at the local library’s Friends’ bookstore, in a small a-frame building by the library. He’s very good there, usually sleeps but is always listening for someone at the door, so I try to get to the door first and alert people to the presence of a large dog. So far our customers have all been fine with him being there, and his calm sweet demeanor earns him lots of pets.

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He did get excited on his second visit, when he first noticed the fake cats perched on several shelves. The one with real fur (rabbit fur I think) was especially interesting to him and he approached it with a mixture of caution and curiosity that was funny to watch.

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As we drove home it was a fine cool fall day, and I found myself slowing down to 30 on the rural road so that Jack could put his head out the window. At 45 or 50 mph he doesn’t like it very much, and there’s some risk from objects (insects, debris) that might hit him in the eye. So we motored home at an unusually slow rate, each appreciating the day in our way. Too much pointless hurrying in life!

Here’s Jack when we stopped to get the mail. He’s looking around for any neighbor dogs that may come out to bark at him, that is one thing he is not calm about.

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Hydraulic mining scars, wildflowers, dogs, and poison oak, a short early-summer walk in the Siskiyous

[I’ve made brief corrections to this post regarding aspects of hydraulic mining, after a commenter pointed them out to me. And a more recent post goes into matters at more length, on points where I was wrong, and others on which I disagree with the commenter.]

We took our new English Mastiff Jack for his first off-leash walk in the woods this morning. He is a 3 1/2 year old rescue who has been with us for nearly a month now. He has settled in very well, comes when called at home even if he is barking at the UPS guy, and so we thought he was ready for an off-leash ramble. Our elderly female Rhodesian Ridgeback went too.

The nearby Gin Lin Trail is named for a Chinese mine owner and “traces the remains of a late-nineteenth-century hydraulic gold mining operation in what was known as the Palmer Creek Diggings, now a part of the Rogue River National Forest.” [more info]

Hydraulic mining used huge pressurized streams of water to turn hillsides or mountainsides into slurry that could be run through sluice boxes to trap the gold. The photo below shows a large-scale operation in action, somewhere in this area of the Oregon Siskiyous, in the latter half of the 19th century. For scale, notice the tiny figure of a man wearing a white shirt, tending the left-hand water hose.

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The tremendous destruction takes geologic time, not human time, to heal. Huge clefts are made in the land, piles of big rocks and new hills of “processed” dirt are put anyplace convenient, and the subsoil brought up doesn’t support plant life as well as the now-buried topsoil did. All this is easily seen along the Gin Lin Trail.

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The picture above shows a steep slope of discarded material a steep-sided ditch, probably hand-dug to accommodate the miners’ equipment—sluice boxes or water pipes. Both the angle of the slope, and the composition of the material itself, are hostile to plant growth. Even on the top where it is closer to level, trees and shrubs are not as numerous or healthy as in undisturbed areas.

Miners blasted away tons of earth trying to follow layers of gold-bearing gravel laid down by ancient rivers. This picture (below) shows a cut made by their work, at the point where they stopped. making ditches like this.

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And here’s some of the big river rocks moved as the mining went on.

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The gold being sought had been deposited by watercourses running down to the river below, seen in the background of this picture. was in layers of Tertiary-era gravel, laid down in the bottoms of rivers 40 – 100 million years ago. Since then the river bottoms have been pushed up by geological forces, and cut through by new drainage systems. The ancient rivers may have had no connexion to existing rivers, since drainage patterns have changed.

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Looking over the fence, from the same spot as the previous picture.

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The dogs had a good time, and Jack stayed close and came when called, as we expected.

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Because of the mining, it isn’t the best place for wildflowers, but we saw a few. This is Elegant Cat’s Ear (Calochortus elegans); the common name refers, I believe, to the fuzziness and triangular shape of the flower petals. This doesn’t show the plant’s leaves but there’s a good photo on Flickr that does.

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Lupines don’t mind disturbed soil as much as many other plants do.

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I think this is the Yellowleaf Iris, Iris chrysophylla.

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And below, Iris bracteata, Siskiyou Iris. [caveat: I’m no expert on wildflowers so my identifications are not guaranteed! This USFS page has photos, range maps, and descriptions of the Pacific Coast iris species.] In our experience, this yellow-flowered iris is less common around here than Iris chrysophylla, the Yellowleaf Iris.

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Below is my least favorite native plant around here, the glossy-leafed Poison Oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum.

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In spring its leaves are usually glossy like this, and may be reddish too. On another plant it would be attractive but to me, the shiny fresh leaves are as ominous as the froth on a bodysnatcher pod.

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We found it along most of the trail, flourishing as if it had been thickly planted and then fertilized and tended. If only my plants at home looked so good! Ravines were choked with it, and of course the dogs wanted to go running down into such places. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten poison oak from a dog’s coat, in all these years of living here, but there’s always a first time. I’ve often gotten it from secondary sources like clothing or even the touch of someone else’s hand. (In a post last year I described something that helps lessen the itching and make the blisters go away faster.)

The damned stuff was everywhere. Every plant visible in the photo below is poison oak.

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Finally the trail ahead was overgrown with it and we gave up and headed back. The dogs ran ahead, enjoying the downhill rush, and got out of sight as we neared the small parking area, where I heard excited voices. It turned out to be the teenage park maintenance crew and their adult supervisor, cruising the areas to do things like gather up garbage strewn around by animals during the night. They were excited by the sudden appearance of a dog who outweighed most of them, and Jack had been pleased to see them but hadn’t bowled anyone over or been a pest. He’s a sweet affable guy except when defending his home turf, and even then has a good sense of proportion.

We loaded up our tired dogs, filled their water dish in the car, and headed home.

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Thirsty dogs drink from the birdbath.

Happy to be drooled on

Drool is back in our lives, finally; and wisps of fur in the corners, and the need to refill the water dish every few hours. We have a new mastiff.

Our beloved English Mastiff Bart, whose picture is at the top of this blog, died in February of old age at eleven and a half, very old for a mastiff. There will never be another Bart, but we knew after only a short time with him that we wanted a mastiff in our household always. We got Bart at 8 weeks but decided this time that a mastiff puppy was more than we were ready to handle, with us being older and my husband facing knee replacement surgery next month. Enter breed rescue: programs run by devoted volunteers for each dog breed, aimed at re-homing dogs of their breed.

These folks want the dogs’ new homes to work, since the dogs have already been through at least one sad parting (and sometimes neglect or worse, as well). We filled out extensive applications, with references; and someone in our area came to meet us and check out our surroundings. Is there a fenced yard? Are there stairs to the house that would be a problem for a mastiff when he’s old? Other pets, livestock? Feeling of stability? Would-be owners’ attitudes and familiarity with the breed, and commitment required? All that stuff and more. We passed, and last weekend we travelled to visit prospective young males in foster homes. The third one we visited was the right one for us, and we drove home with our new mastiff Jack.

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We weren’t looking for a dog that resembled Bart, but it turned out that way. Jack is “fawn” like Bart, but is taller and longer-bodied. He has the same steady intelligent gaze, calm manner, and affectionate nature, that Bart did. He’s a little over three, and his previous home gave him good socialization and some training––age and training were important to us: a rambunctious rowdy 150-lb dog does not mix well with recovery from knee surgery.

Our elderly Rhodesian Ridgeback Brook went along on the trip, and got to spend a couple of hours with Jack after we decided (early in our visit) that he was the one.

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She went from growling at him to following him around to sniff him, and they rode home uneventfully in the back of the SUV together. We did have to convince Jack not to ride in the front seat, right at the beginning, but that was easy. He is easy-going and wants to please. Essential, in a dog his size! English Mastiffs are protective of their owners’ person and property but have been bred for a long time to have a calm and gentle temperament. A mastiff’s size and formidable appearance mean that he or she rarely needs to give more than a look or a bark, to warn off some stranger. Responsible breeders (of any dog breed) pay as much attention to temperament as to physical characteristics. You want a dog who is healthy and reliable in both regards, mens sana in copore sano.

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Jack has tried out all the dog beds in the house but has not gotten up on the couch even though he sees Brook up there. Until we can clip his long bear-claw-like nails, it is just as well. He hadn’t let the foster home’s vet draw blood for a heartworm test but our vet got one easily (and it was negative), with the old Cheez Wiz method (dog is busy licking the cheese-like substance out of the nozzle, and nothing else matters!) but by the time we got to the nail clipping part he’d had enough cheese and resisted. No growls, just pulling away, and believe me he is strong. We use a dremel for dog nails so I have left it on the floor the past two evenings to introduce him to it, and have also been getting him used to me holding his paws and touching his nails. He’s making progress, but no telling if that will hold when the actual clipping/grinding occurs. He has tried to eat the sandpaper cylinder off the grinder but I can’t interpret that, except he isn’t backing away from it any more.

Jack’s original home was with a couple and their teen-age daughter. He was the husband’s dog but when the marriage broke up the husband abandoned him, then the wife had to sell the house in order to give the husband his share of the money. She had a dog of her own, and could not keep Jack, BUT she was savvy enough to know about, or find out about, a breed rescue organization with a local presence. Friends of Rescued Mastiffs is a national organization, non-profit, providing care, foster homes, and re-homing to mastiffs. They deal with dogs from situations like Jack’s, dogs found as strays or in shelters, ones seized for neglect, and from puppy mills (both young ones and breeding stock). Good rescue organizations like FORM also check out the dogs to see if they are suitable for a new home, and what the conditions might be (OK with cats? other dogs? too rambunctious to be around small children at this age? needs someone who can do extensive training?). There are other good organizations helping mastiffs, but FORM was Jack’s salvation. We count ourselves very lucky to have found Jack and he seems to be settling in very happily with us. We’ll be sending photos and a report to the regional coordinator, in hopes she can pass the word on to the woman and girl who loved Jack and had to give him up. He has obviously been well loved and cared for.

No breed of dog is “for everyone” and English Mastiffs are no exception. They occupy a lot of space; fur and drool will find their way onto your furniture, clothing, etc.; and they want to be with you all the time. That’s usual for dogs, though, they aren’t toys with an on/off switch you can pay attention to only when you feel like it.

Giant dog breeds have shorter life spans than smaller dogs, and if they need medication or surgery the bills will be big too. That’s another reason to check out breeders carefully, see the parents, ask about testing for hip/elbow/eye problems that may be inherited. Visit someone with one or more mastiffs and see how it feels to be around such big dogs. Talk about the pros and cons. Think about your situation: how much time do you have to spend with a dog (for whom you will be the center of life)? How much space, indoors and out? We have a big house and fenced area, but our newly acquired 2005 Trail Blazer seems a bit crowded now with Brook and Jack in it!

Do you have plans to move, or have a baby? Dogs and babies are not at all mutually exclusive; pit bulls were reportedly used as “nanny” dogs to watch over toddlers a hundred years ago, and an adult mastiff who has been properly socialized is gentle, tolerant, and completely reliable around children. But you may not have enough time to do justice to both a new dog and a new baby; certainly you need to see how your dog of any breed behaves around children–does he or she get excited so that body or tail could knock a child over? Is the dog able to resist “taking candy from a baby”? and so on. None of these are reasons to give away your dog before having a baby, but they are factors in getting a dog, or in planning how your dog will be able to be around your children especially when dog or child is very young.

Educate yourself before acquiring any breed of dog! Even mixed breed dogs usually have some discernible breed heritage, and shelter employees or friends who really do know a lot about dogs, can be helpful. An as example, terriers and sheepdogs have higher energy levels than many other breeds: not a good choice for a dog that will spend a lot of time alone.

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