By Lisa James
Nicole Basso had owned dogs before—and then she and her husband adopted Lilly from a local animal shelter.
Lilly turned out to be “very mouthy—putting her mouth around my arm, jumping,” says Basso, 46, of Huntington, New York. “Bringing her back to the shelter was never an option but we were a little overwhelmed.”
There are a lot of dogs out there like Lilly. “We see dogs coming into shelters who are still behaving like puppies because they’ve never been taught another way,” says Rita Schrecongost, ABCDT, APDT, of Dog Training-101 in Islip, New York, the trainer Basso turned to for help.
A Range of Problems
Jumping and mouthiness are two nuisance behaviors. Others include:
Barking: Dogs will bark to defend their territory (the yard, for example); other reasons include looking for attention or as a greeting; alarm barking or howling occurs in reaction to things the dog hears or sees.
Chewing: Some chewing is normal, especially for puppies; however, it can become destructively out of hand.
Whining: Dogs will whine as a greeting, to get attention or as a sign of submission to people or other dogs; anxiety can also cause whining.
Anxiety is one of those behaviors that go beyond the nuisance category. Some dogs become upset when their owners go away (separation anxiety) or in response to specific provocations such as fireworks; others show signs of overall nervousness.
Often, it takes a bit of detective work to find out exactly what is happening. “It all has to be teased apart,” says Deborah Martin, PhD, DVM, animal behaviorist at Fairview Animal Hospital in Ellenwood, Georgia. “If they are fearful of strangers, is it big strangers, little kids or all strangers? If they react to dogs, is it little dogs, big dogs or all dogs?”
The most worrisome behavior is aggression, especially biting. Martin says dogs can be aggressive towards people or other dogs, whether strangers or members of their own household.
Sometimes dogs react badly when someone tries to take food from them (food guarding). They may also guard other resources, such as toys or the owner’s bed; “there are wives who have trouble with dogs guarding the bed from the husband,” says Charli Sorrentino, CPDT-KA, CCBC, ABCDT-L2, CMDT, of The Dog Chick in Huntington, New York.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, aggressive biting is the culmination of increasingly menacing behaviors, which can include growling, snarling, baring teeth and snapping.
It’s a good idea to leave more serious behavioral issues, especially severe anxiety and aggression, to professionals (see below).
“These behaviors tend to get worse over time if they’re not addressed,” says Martin. “It can easily take an hour or two to figure out what’s going on before coming up with a program tailored to that animal’s needs.”
When looking for a trainer, it pays to ask questions, such as “who are you certified by, what methods do you use, what equipment do you use,” recommends Sorrentino. “Ask to see the certification. I want people to come and see what I do first before they decide if I’m the person for them and their dog.”
Toning Down Nuisance Behaviors
As opposed to serious biting, puppies and some older dogs will nip if they become really excited during play.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to leave the dog for five seconds and then go back, repeating the sequence if he nips again. “Your dog will soon figure out that play ends and you go away if he bites,” says Nicole Ellis, (CPDT-KA), a dog trainer with Rover.com.
You can also look for signs that your pup is getting ready to nip; end the play session, “give him belly rubs and talk to him calmly,” Ellis adds. “As he starts to get quiet, tell him how good he’s being.”
This anti-nipping exercise is an example of positive reinforcement. Now the accepted training philosophy (as opposed to earlier punitive methods), it involves rewarding the good with treats and praise.
Let’s say you have a dog who acts up whenever someone new comes to the house. “Instead of chaining the dog up, banishing him to another room or yelling, we want to let the dog know that when someone comes in, we will give him a food reward so the scary thing doesn’t seem as scary as before,” Sorrentino explains.
It also helps to see things from the dog’s point of view. For instance, dogs love to dig. Instead of getting angry, “create a digging pit. Get a kiddy pool and fill it with dirt and toys from the dollar store,’” suggests Sorrentino.
Sometimes, behaviors that drive people crazy work in canine terms.
Sorrentino gives the example of a leashed dog who barks and lunges at the sight of another dog: “They just want to get the dog to go away,” she says. “Because the other dog’s owner will walk away, in your dog’s mind, the behavior accomplished what he set out to do.”
The idea is to find what Sorrentino calls “the dog’s safe spot. If the dog feels safe if the other dog is 20 feet away, we’ll start working at that
distance,” gently desensitizing the dog to the presence of other canines.
Other situations work the same way.
“Often when puppies are teething, it feels really good to them to bite and chew,” says Elllis. You want a puppy chewing on things like stuffed Kongs or bully sticks; if he goes after your new shoes instead, Ellis recommends saying “‘No!’ and taking it away. Then give him an appropriate chewing toy and give him lots of praise when he takes it.”
In a similar fashion, Ellis suggests teaching a dog who begs at the dinner table “to go somewhere else during mealtime” or one that barks excessively when guests arrive to “go to a mat each time someone comes to the door.” In both cases, reward the dog with treats and lavish praise.
As the dog’s companion, you play a central role in helping him adjust to your world.
“The owner needs to be confident and have good communication skills,” says Schrecongost. “You need to be consistent; the dog needs to know you are reliable.” So if you want to keep the dog off the couch, do it all the time—and make sure everyone in the household does the same thing.
Depending on the problem, patience and consistency—along with getting to know your dog as an individual—can yield quick results. “It’s understanding what motivates that dog, what’s rewarding to that dog,” notes Schrecongost.
Basso found that to be true with Lilly.
“Rita taught us to be really consistent, to not give up, and to be very positive and use treats,” she says. “She showed us how to get Lilly to sit and look at the treat, to stop being so hyper.”
The earlier you start training your dog, the more problems you can eliminate from the beginning.
“The more you teach at an earlier age, the more receptive they are to learning, instead of them getting into bad habits,” says Schrecongost. She adds that while obedience classes can start at about four months, younger puppies can be taught “to sit, to walk on different kinds of surfaces, to go up and down things.”
Getting your dog out of the house and around both people and animals is crucial.
“Have them meet other dogs, cats, kids, old people,” says Sorrentino, who notes that after a couple of months, “people will stop with the walks, stop visits to pet stores and just let the dog out into the backyard.”
And remember: Be patient. “As the pet owner, you just have to be consistent in whatever you do,” says Basso. “It’s not going to work in one day.”
Finding a Professional
Looking for someone to help you address your dog’s problems? Here are some places to start:
Applied Animal Behaviorists: These individuals have earned advanced degrees in animal behavior and behavior modification, either a PhD (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, CAAB) or an MS or MA (Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, ACAAB). Most work through vet referrals; to learn more, contact the Animal Behavior Society.
Dog Trainers: Levels of education vary. Several different organizations offer certifciations; two of them are the Animal Behavior College, which offers an Animal Behavior College Certified Dog Trainer (ABCDT) credential, and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, which offers the Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) credential.
Veterinary Behaviorists: These are veterinarians who have taken a residency in animal behavior and passed a qualifying exam. Like all vets, they can prescribe medication if needed. Contact the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
Chilling Out Unhappy Cats
She did it again—your cat left you a “gift” on the floor. What’s up, kitty?
You are probably part of the problem. Litterboxes are often not only dirty but also “tiny, hidden and covered; we basically make them really freaking scary for cats,” says certified cat behavior consultant Ingrid Johnson (fundamentallyfeline.com).
Johnson suggests getting an uncovered box (or boxes, for multiple cats) that’s at least one and a half times as long as the cat, located in place(s) the cat frequents; a large, clear tote with an entrance/exit cutout is ideal. Johnson adds that cats prefer an unscented, clumping, soft clay litter. (Keep the box scooped once a day, bare minimum, and it won’t smell.)
Another problem: The hissy fits that can erupt when you try to enlarge your feline family. “Cats are solitary hunters, but tend to live in small groups called colonies,” explains Johnson. “Competition for resources (places to eat, sleep, eliminate and play) is, hands down, the biggest reason cats fight.”
One common scenario is trying to find a companion for an older cat. Johnson recommends getting a pair of kittens: “They will be less threatening to the senior and have each other to grow up with.” Don’t introduce the new housemates too quickly and bribe everyone with lots of extra-tasty food. You can also try commercial pheromones, substances cats produce naturally that give them the “we’re cool” sign.
Cats can get into all sorts of mischief when bored.
“It’s good to provide your cat with activities and objects that allow them to express their cat-ness!” says certified cat behavior consultant Mikel Delgado, PhD, who works with Rover.com. That includes a tall cat tree and/or shelves for kitty to climb, toys (rotated to keep things interesting), hiding places, a bed and scratching posts. (To avoid furniture damage, place the posts wherever the cat hangs out, and keep kitty’s claws clipped.)
Delgado also suggests play sessions with something like a feather wand, saying, “A tired cat is a happy cat.”