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Thursday, March 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dumbfounded by your dog?

Animal behaviorists Dr. James Ha and Kathy Sdao answered a selection of your dog questions. He is a research associate professor in the psychology department's animal-behavior program at the University of Washington and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. She has a master's in comparative cognition from the University of Hawaii, is a former zookeeper at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, and owns Bright Spot Dog Training in Tacoma.

And don't forget to read how you can bone up on dog behavior. Go fetch.

What is the best mid-sized breed that will be able to run three miles with me on occasion, yet be satisfied with simple walks on most days of the week? This dog would also need to have a very friendly disposition, patience with other aging pets in the household, and with a nine-year-old child's ministrations and love. This dog would probably have some alone time during the day with access to a large yard.Cynthia, Kenmore

Jim: Try this Web site survey to help you make some smart choices. Go to www.purina.com/dogs and look for the dog breed selector on the upper left. This survey is very educational to go through — try changing some of your answers to see what comes up. It can really help you narrow down the choices.
I have a six-year-old golden retriever who will retrieve quite well but generally refuses to give up his prize. He wants me to throw it again but won't drop or give it to me. What is he trying to tell me? I know he isn't tired of the fetch game. Is it because he is a retriever and not a giver-backer? Not in his job description?Mark, Olympia

Jim: Nope, he probably wants to play keep away — that's my dog's preferred game. This is a training issue so get yourself some REALLY attractive treats, so good that he wants the treat more than the ball (bits of roast beef, hot dog, steak, cheese), and start trading. Teach your dog that it is WORTH dropping that ball to get the treat. Associate the word you want to use with the behavior of dropping the ball and being rewarded with a treat. Pretty soon, it becomes automatic: Hearing the word is connected to dropping the ball, perhaps with an occasional treat to continue reinforcing the behavior.
Our dog hears ghosts! He's making us crazy. He is a four-year-old, brown dog (possible Lab/rot mix), usually very mellow. But lately at night he has been very anxious and erupts into barking at the very slightest noise. We have tried just about everything to get him to stop, short of a shock collar; positive reassurance seems to work better than negative. We have two new cats. We think a lot of what he hears is them playing at night. Anything else that you think we can do to help stop the barking?Grayson, Sammamish

Kathy: I'd guess that your caring reassurances may have reinforced your dog's nighttime restlessness. The noise of the new cats may have gotten this behavior started, and now it is fueled by occasional social rewards (or even reprimands) from you. But something more serious may be going on too; the barking could be just a symptom. Ignoring true anxiety will not work. Nor, of course, will a shock collar! Please consider meeting with a behaviorist so that the potential underlying anxiety issues can be addressed. And so you can get a good night's sleep!
My dog hates to have her nails cut. I have tried treats and all kinds of positive reinforcements. I may get one back nail clipped but no front ones. This is becoming a test of will. Do I persist or let it go for another day?Elaine, Seattle

Jim: You should get some help from a professional behavior specialist or trainer ... this is just a nice example of positive reward training. You are on the right track, but you need some help, like in choosing some VERY rewarding treats and in developing a gradual desensitization-training approach. For some help online, check out: www.vetmed.wsu.edu/ClientED/dog_nails.asp
I have three Chihuahuas, all girls. Only one of them interacts with the other two; the other two will have nothing to do with each other. Why is that?Sandy, Covington

Kathy: The same reason you don't interact with many people you see on a daily basis. They aren't friends. They don't find each other's company all that exciting. It's common for dogs in the same house to ignore each other. If you have two dogs that play together and seek out each other's company, consider yourself lucky. You might be able to use a process called classical conditioning to improve your dogs' attitudes toward one another, but it's not a pressing problem. Also, the dogs' attitudes could change as they mature.
I want to buy a puppy (Irish Terrier) for my eight-year-old daughter. The problem is that our family lives in two-bedroom townhouse. We can't designate the whole room for a dog and we can't keep it outside. Consequently we will have to leave our puppy for nine hours inside our home five days a week. Obviously we cannot afford to let it urinate and defecate all over the place. Is there any way for us to raise a puppy with the help of kennels or any other "equipment"? Should we just get an adult and well-trained dog?Yan, Bellevue

Jim: You would have to be at home for house-breaking for a few weeks. This sounds like a really good situation for adoption of an older, house-broken dog. If you go this route, get some prompt professional help to deal with the new adoption and the adjustment period, and you could really help an older dog in need of a home. And you should think very carefully about your home situation and the kind of dog you get. There are some excellent resources on the Web that can help you match breeds with lifestyle.
I have an eight-month-old Rhodesian ridgeback. He will not stop jumping on the door when he is outside and wants to come in. We have tried time-outs, positive reinforcement when he does not jump, spraying with water when he jumps. Any suggestions?Katherine, Kirkland

Kathy: Jumping on the door to get you to open it has a history of reinforcement for this pup. It's worked for him. To get the behavior to stop, you need to extinguish it. That means never rewarding it. Never. Ignore it completely. No reprimands or water squirts. The behavior will definitely get worse — longer duration, more intensity — before it dies out. (Think about your own behavior of pushing an elevator button that isn't working.) Be prepared for this. Cover your back door with plywood temporarily if you're worried about the damage. But it will stop, and your pup will try another behavior to get you to open the door. Make sure to heavily reward this alternative behavior. Your problem won't be solved until the dog has an alternate way to call you (e.g., by sitting, ringing a bell hanging from the doorknob, etc.) Of course, you could also supervise your dog when he is outside so that he doesn't have to call you at all to open the door. Then you could decide when it is time to go inside.
We have a Lab/German shepherd and she has fleas. We have been treating her with topical flea treatments for about eight months and she still has fleas. What do we do now?Maggie, Bothell

Jim: See a veterinarian. There are a number of excellent new solutions to the flea problem.
Our dog does two things that are troublesome to us. He drinks excessive amounts of water and eats the cat's food (although he has plenty of his own). Could he have some kind of health problem? Thank you.Kathy, Seattle

Jim: Yes, he could. See a veterinarian about this promptly. Dogs have a tendency to eat whenever they have a chance, so eating the cat's food if it's available is not surprising and easy to stop by restricting the dog's access to the cat's food bowl. It's hard to say what "excessive drinking" is. If there is no medical condition, then whatever the dog wants to drink is fine.
I have a six-month-old puppy and I want to make sure I don't inadvertently induce separation anxiety. I don't greet him immediately after returning home (or into a room) and I don't do a good-bye ritual. Any other ideas?Kerrie, Seattle

Jim: I actually don't have any problem with a good-bye ritual and I think a greeting ritual, in the manner and place you desire, is positive. It's while you are gone that you need to deal with. Stimulation is the answer. Make sure that your dog is so busy with something so positive and rewarding that he hardly notices your departure. From a very early age, my Aussie got a puzzle feeder filled with a little peanut butter and some dog treats (factored into her daily diet). Now she gets all excited about our leaving and can't wait for us to leave to get her treat, which takes her hours to clean out. So we have turned our leaving the house into a positive experience rather than a negative one for her.
My two-year-old pug is not eager for walks. He loves to play, but when I try to take him for a walk, he sits down after a couple blocks and he won't move when I pull him. He's not overweight, but he is a little lazy!Tanya, Seattle

Kathy: Your young pug could be in pain, though that is less likely because he loves to play. I suspect he is uncomfortable on walks and that may have something to do with how he is "dressed." Try using a front-attachment body harness (www.waynehightower.com). Bring fabulous food treats with you on your next walk, but don't use them as bribes! That would teach your dog to stop in order to get you to bait him with food. A few days of this and your pug will be convinced that the way to make you give food is to sit down! Use your food to reward him as he is actually walking. Ignore him when he stops; your pulling is just causing him to resist your pressure. Keep walks very brief — 5 minutes — and upbeat and full of food for at least a week.
I have a seven-year-old, 10-pound rat terrier (Jackson) who is crazy about cars. Whenever he sees a car he immediately heads toward it to get in. Friends come over and the second they open their car door to get out, Jackson hops in and starts going crazy! He licks everything, especially the windows, barks and jumps all around. It's not safe to have him loose in the car (he sometimes attacks my feet) so I kennel him in the car, but even in the kennel he licks every inch and gets all wet with saliva. If my car window is open he will jump through it to get in. He will actually jump through any car window, does not have to be my car. Can you help me?Christi, Seattle

Jim: It's hard to tell what's going on here. I would need a lot more information (and so, I encourage you to consult a behavior specialist) but it sounds like Jackson likes riding in the car, that he has been rewarded for it because perhaps car rides end up at the park or some other great spot. So that is great &8212; many dogs are fearful in cars. But you need more control: You need to develop a good obedience program so that Jackson is under your control, using your rules not his. He needs to learn that the great rewards come from waiting patiently at the car's door, not by jumping in a window, for example. We could have a mixture of excitement and anxiety going on here so the situation might be more complicated than I can tell from this information.
My dog is getting old and I don't want to go running to the vet for the normal conditions of old age. But I do want to extend her life with medical care, if that's what she needs. What are some of the symptoms of a old dog that is in big trouble?Dale, Redmond

Kathy: As a lover of geriatric dogs, I really appreciate your question. But it would be much better addressed by a veterinarian. The work of behaviorists and veterinarians does overlap, but your biggest concerns are likely to be physiological. Some behavioral disorders (e.g., separation anxiety, noise phobias, pain-induced aggression, incontinence) can show up for the first time when a dog reaches her senior years — usually defined as seven and up (though this varies greatly by breed). In these cases, a thorough veterinary exam is always our first step.
We have a dog that we rescued four months ago (boxer, Lab mix). He is between 1 and 2 years old and he chews on things pretty much all the time. For his age this is understandable, but he actually eats everything he chews off in large pieces: pine cones, branches, plastics, etc. This week he actually ate an entire bar of soap while we were gone. We have bought him different types of dog toys for chewing that are marketed as indestructible but he can still destroy them. We have two other dogs that he plays with a good part of the day, but he still finds time to chew. What should we get him to chew on that would be safe?Jaree, Bothell

Jim: I am going to refer you to your veterinarian for this question: opinions vary a bit, but they should be able to provide some good advice. I will say that you might want to look into less of a straight chew toy and more of a puzzle-feeder, such as a Kong toy stuffed with goodies or one of the many ways of feeding treats in a challenging manner. And the chewing will decrease with age, so hang on. But if they can provide chews and puzzle-toys to wolves and tigers, there must be something out there for you!
Our 17-month-old, 110-pound chocolate lab, Charlie, has an issue with chewing. He is fabulous when we are home — chewing on his bones, toys and ropes. However, when we leave — nothing is sacred. He has chewed three dog beds to bits — ripping out all the filling; shoes, coats, the carpet. He also chews anything he can find in the car, if I leave him, even after two hours at the dog park and even if he has a bone or chew with him. Any suggestions?Athena, Seattle

Kathy: Charlie may have separation anxiety; we can't tell from the info you provided. More likely, though, is that Charlie hasn't been "chew trained." Confine him away from chewable items when you are gone. Use a sturdy crate or exercise pen, or a laundry room. Leave him something way more interesting than a bone. Stuff his entire breakfast in a couple of big "food puzzles" (e.g., Kongs, Twist-n-Treats, Activity Balls). Use peanut butter, cream cheese or canned dog food to glue the kibble in there. Don't feed him any other way for several days. Also, if he isn't ingesting the toys — just shredding them — you could experiment with wrapping these food puzzles in old rags. Dogs like shredding stuff. It's part of being a dog. As long as it's not endangering his health, find ways to let him express this behavior on cheap, replaceable items.
We have a six-year-old redbone coonhound (male). He gets up two, three times per night to go to the bathroom. We know he can hold it through the night and sometimes it seems he just gets up because he's bored. He will shake, scratch and pace our hallway until my husband or I lets him out. How can we stop this habit so we can get an full night of sleep?Anni, Seattle

Jim: If you are sure that he can hold it, that a veterinarian has determined that there is no disease, then stop letting him out. Yup, tough at first, but it is a principle of behavior modification that if you stop providing the reward (being let out when bored or curious), the behavior (scratching and whining) will decrease and stop. Every time you let him out on his schedule, not yours, you are rewarding his ability to control you. If you are concerned about his needing to go out, wait until he settles down again and is quiet, THEN let him out. Your rules, not his!
I have a 16-month-old boxer who is generally well behaved. She is socialized and gets along with the other dogs at doggy daycare. On the leash and on walks she is very aggressive to other dogs to the point that we now have to avoid other dogs as much as possible. Please help me as we are developing a bad reputation in our neighborhood! Thanks.Joanne, Seattle

Kathy: We answered a question very similar to this in yesterday's article. Good for you for socializing your boxer to other dogs! The skill your pup has developed at daycare does not necessarily transfer over to other contexts, though, especially "on leash with mom." Leash aggression is a common, embarrassing, curable problem. Reprimanding the dog for the rude behavior is counter-productive. It teaches the dog only that the presence of other dogs is bad news. In a few lessons, a good trainer could coach you through practical exercises you should practice with your dog. Or you could consider attending a local workshop designed especially for this, for example: http://www.dogdaysnw.com/events/KathySdaoFlyer.html. Two Web sites to locate experienced, humane trainers: www.apdt.com and www.clickerteachers.net
The person who noted that their Dalmatian doesn't always come when called should also be advised to have the dog's hearing checked. Isn't deafness common in that breed? It may be that the dog only comes when they can see the person who is calling them and the person is interpreting that as only coming if the dog knows they have a treat.Daphne, Enumclaw

Jim: Absolutely! Perhaps we failed to say it in every answer, but every dog with a behavior problem must see a veterinarian first. It is a requirement of my consulting practice that the owner be able to provide a clean bill of health for the dog. We have to start there in solving the problem, and only after the check up do we move on to behavioral methods.
We have a two-year-old yellow Lab who shows unusual mental behavior. Does a happy and relaxed home have a direct link to how much a dog can advance in mental aptitude?Mike, Tulalip

Jim: Well, I am not sure what you mean by "unusual mental behavior" but it is certainly true that a happy and relaxed home can help produce a happy and relaxed dog, just like in humans. This is the reason that one of the most important parts of my behavior consultations is the interview in which I ask a lot of questions about the structure and functioning of the home life. It can make a big difference in the behavior.
What do you recommend for my dog the escape artist? I have about three acres fenced. My dog, a golden retriever, climbs out of the fence whenever I leave him home alone. He then roams the neighborhood and barks at my very kind neighbor until the neighbor lets him back in the fence. He loves being outside and I want to be able to leave him in the yard but am afraid of what may happen if he gets out. Everything I have tried seems to work for a few days and then he finds a way around it. Is this something that can be helped with training or do I need to resort to other measures, such as an invisible fence?JNR, Vashon

Jim: I would bet that your dog needs more stimulation. Check into the wide variety of puzzle toys or puzzle feeders, automatic ball throwers, and other stimulus-producing devices out there. When I leave my high-energy Aussie at home, I ALWAYS leave a puzzle-feeder filled with goodies. These goodies are part of her diet (that is, I feed her less regular kibble on days when she gets a food toy). There is an enormous variety of fun, attractive snack foods that you can stick into these toys, and it can take them hours to get it all out of there.
My 2 1/2 -year-old Golden Retriever wakes up at 3 a.m. nightly, pacing around the bed, finding things to put in his mouth (usually shoes) and crying very loudly. I've got up with him but he doesn't need to go to the bathroom. How can I get a good night's sleep and make sure he's OK too?Kathy, Auburn

Kathy: Your dog could be in pain. Get him to a vet immediately for a thorough check-up. If he's healthy, try exercising him for at least an hour — more if possible — for a few days in a row. Make sure he's tired enough to sleep through the night. Then wear some earplugs and ignore his 3 a.m. restlessness. Your attention may be inadvertently rewarding this and setting up a tough-to-break habit. You could also consider confining him in a comfy crate for a few nights to minimize his pacing. If these suggestions don't work, a behaviorist could help identify other factors that might be contributing to this problem.
My bulldog is very afraid of many objects (guitars, brooms, anything on the larger side). She shakes horribly and barks. Any way we can help her overcome this fear?Jamie, Seattle

Jim: Again, I'll say make sure that you get a good check-up from a veterinarian and then I strongly encourage you to seek a consultation with a behavior specialist, because there are so many factors that can produce and aggravate this behavior. You will need to develop new associations with these objects by developing a training program using a collection of positive rewards, usually food such as steak, roast beef, bits of hot dog or cheese. The idea is to very gradually expose your pup to one of the anxiety-producing objects (at a distance, perhaps) and then reward calm, relaxed behavior. The idea is that your dog should learn to associate REALLY GOOD rewards with those nasty, fearful objects.
Our beloved 6-year-old male Shih Tzu "marks" with urine inside the house. He is an otherwise good-natured, well-behaved part of the family but is at risk of removal. We have tried positive reinforcement, punishment, avoidance (kenneling when we are not home) and even an off-the-shelf product sprayed on the areas. However, the same few spots are subject to urination once or more each week. We had the dog examined to make sure there was no physical consideration. For the longest time, we thought it only occurred when we were not home and he was acting out for being left alone but this is not necessarily the case.Tim, Snohomish

Kathy: Don't despair — there is hope! Please get a second veterinary check-up; be certain to rule out any underlying physical condition. Also, neuter him if he isn't already. Make access to his favorite indoor toilets impossible. Move furniture if necessary. Then use confinement (baby gates, tethers, exercise pens, leashing him to your waist, holding him on your lap) to insure no indoor accidents. Accompany him on every outdoor potty trip and reward (with special food) every correct pee. See yesterday's Seattle Times article for more details on this. And consider hiring a behaviorist to visit your home to help design a behavior-modification plan specific to your needs.
My dog, Henry, has an aversion to children. He tenses up, gets within a few feet of a child, and barks aggressively. He also doesn't handle people coming over to the house well and barks incessantly. He won't calm down. We've tried giving him a task (sit, drop), but it doesn't alleviate the behavior. How can we work with him on dealing with children and with house guests? Thank you!Rosanna, Seattle

Jim: As always, there can be a lot of different factors involved in these behaviors, so I always recommend a veterinarian screening for health issues that might be related to this behavior, and a consult with a behavior specialist. BUT, the basic approach to these situations is to counter-condition the behavior. This means that you need to find a fantastic reward, usually a food item (we are talking roast beef, cheese, something REALLY good) and then reward (instantly and repeatedly) good behavior in these situations. You have to become a reward dispenser, nearly continuous at first. You want the dog's attention to be on you, and for the dog to come to associate the (GREAT) reward with the presence of whatever it is that triggers the undesirable behavior. There is more to it than this, but that's the basics!
I am having some problems with my young dog (10 months) when I attend obedience classes. He is a very social golden retriever who would much rather play with the other dogs than work in this situation. He ends up either pulling me around the training facility for an hour or wiggles around under my chair, making it very difficult for me to learn anything in these environments. It has become a slippery slope, and I feel that I am wasting my money on these classes. Do you have suggestions on how to get my dog to calm down quickly in these situations?Niki, Seattle

Kathy: It's possible that a group training class is not the best setting for you and your dog to learn. Many trainers offer private lessons; these allow you to practice with less distractions. After a couple private lessons, you may feel comfortable rejoining a group class. Also, you might consider your current group class a place to teach your pup to attend to you despite the distractions. In other words, maybe you should practice this rather than the exercise your instructor has assigned. Please check with your instructor to make sure this is OK with her/him.

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