Why won’t my dog listen to me?

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There are good reasons that dogs may not do what we ask

Let’s say you have a dog named Fluffy. You’ve had him for three years and invested so much in his happy, wonderful life. You buy the best food and take him with you when you travel to fun and exciting places.

You and Fluffy went to training classes for several weeks when he was younger. He seemed to understand the basics: Sit, Come, Down, Stay, Heel. So, Fluffy is supposed to do what you ask, right? The trainers assured you that dogs are supposed to listen to humans. Every. Time.

But sometimes you ask Fluffy to do something… and Fluffy keeps doing what he’s doing.

And you have so many questions. Is it OK that he doesn’t do what I ask? Am I doing something wrong? Am I not forceful enough (not “alpha” enough)? Does Fluffy need a training refresher course? If I don’t make him do what I ask, doesn’t he “win”? What do I do??

Let me assure you that there are many reasons that Fluffy may not listen to you at any given moment. And you can, by paying attention to what Fluffy is doing when he’s not doing what you asked, figure out the likely reason.

Here are the four primary reasons dogs don’t do what we’ve asked:

  • They Don’t Know How. I know Fluffy is a genius and learns so quickly. But sometimes when we teach something new, we need to offer a training grace period before expecting that Fluffy can follow a new cue consistently. This isn’t a training post; so, we won’t go into the most effective way to train a new cue. Just remember that it will take time for Fluffy to get things right reliably.
  • They Physically Can’t Right Now. Dogs are not always physically capable of everything we ask of them. Sometimes they’re sore from previous exercise or simply don’t feel well. Sometimes they can do something but don’t think they can and may be reluctant to try. When you ask an older dog to jump up on the sofa, sometimes he can and sometimes he can’t. Or after you’ve taken your pup for a 5-mile run, he may need a pass on jumping into the back of the pickup. This is not truly a case of not listening – but of not feeling able to comply.
  • They’re Emotionally Over-Threshold and Can’t Hear You. Dogs get overwhelmed by circumstances the same way people do. Imagine that you’re driving on a busy highway in a heavy rainstorm at dusk and someone in the car asks you for help with an algebra problem. Chances are good that your reaction will be a swift, “Can we PLEASE talk about that later??” Your dog has those moments, too. He’s barking at a terrifying (to him) dog across the street and you’re asking him to sit. If you could read his mind at that moment, he may also be asking, “Can we PLEASE talk about that later??” In short, he can’t do what you ask because he’s busy paying careful attention to whatever stimulus has sent him over threshold. In those moments, be glad Fluffy is on a leash or in the safety of your own home and try to get him away from the stimulus causing so much arousal; you can try to treat the underlying fear later.
  • It’s Not Really Worth It. Fluffy is busy doing what Fluffy enjoys (chasing a squirrel, playing at the dog park, eating something delicious he found under a bush during a walk). Then you ask him to do something different (heel, come, drop it).

    Here’s where dog owners sometimes struggle: Fluffy has his own motivations and desires. You might well be under the impression that those are less important than yours – and American society, on the whole, would appear to support you in that. But Fluffy doesn’t agree. So, in that moment, your motivations and desires are probably in conflict with his. When this happens, you have three choices:
  • You can try standing your ground and somehow compelling Fluffy to do what you’ve asked; this is where punishment would typically be applied. The problem with this approach you still may not actually get Fluffy to listen to you, you will certainly introduce increased tension and possible aggression to the situation, and you may cause Fluffy to become afraid of you.
    • You might decide that it’s not really at all important for Fluffy to do what you asked. You don’t really need to leave the dog park right now. Or that burrito he found under the bush looks pretty safe for him to eat.
    • You might try to find a way for Fluffy to want to do what you ask. A treat may make leaving the dog park a better idea than staying. Treats might be more fun than chasing a squirrel he’s not going to catch anyway. A high, happy voice may get Fluffy’s attention to make it clear to him that there’s a promise of a treat for following you out of the dog park or away from the squirrel. You can even train a special cue that says “extra-special treat coming!!!” Some people use the cue “cookies” or something else they don’t use at other times.

Which of these you choose may depend on the situation or your relationship with Fluffy. The first option, compulsion, has a lot of possible side effects associated with it (remember the increased tension and possible fear?); so it’s probably not the best strategy.

The second option calls into question whether dogs (and cats and horses, etc.) have agency. In other words, how much should Fluffy’s motivations and wishes be indulged? Generally speaking, if Fluffy is not getting into a dangerous or destructive situation, and his desires are not overly inconvenient for you, he should probably be given a pass on responding to your request. I find myself, after asking my dog to do something – only to discovery that he clearly is not interested, following my request with “…or not…” and laughing. I really don’t mind, as long as it was an offer or suggestion on my part.

The third option is for when the thing you’re asking really does need to happen. For instance, you’re crossing a busy intersection when Fluffly stops to scratch his ear. This is an acceptable thing to do pretty much anyplace else. But not here. So, you use your excited happy voice to call Fluffy to follow you and make it seem like a game. Fluffy decides that a game is better than ear scratching and follows you. Or, maybe Fluffy has just found a sock your son left on the floor and apparently thinks it’s a toy. So, you grab a couple of treats, show them to Fluffy, and toss them several feet away. Fluffy drops the sock to go get the treats and you drop the sock safely in the hamper. In this situation, the problem is easily resolved, and everyone feels pretty happy about the outcome.

Here are three simple messages:

  1. If your dog isn’t doing what you ask, a little sleuthing should tell you why.
  2. Assume he has the purest possible reasons for “not listening” and decide whether your request is important enough to overcome them.
  3. Forcing your dog to do what you want just because you think he should is a recipe for a tense relationship and possible aggression. You’re better off looking at your dog’s motivations as important considerations in your relationship.

Food Toys and Dispensers for Dogs and Cats: Who needs a food dish, anyway?

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Food toys can keep a pet busy and happy!

Likely everyone is familiar with food toys for dogs – the ubiquitous Kong®, for instance. But most pet owners aren’t making the most of the food toys at their disposal. This post is aimed at changing that.

There are really three uses for food toys for dogs and cats: To provide a meal, to provide distraction, and to provide rewards during the training of new behaviors. Let’s look at the options available for these uses.

For the owner who wants all of their pet’s meals to come from a food toy: Kudos to you! Ample evidence shows that pets feel more satiated after a meal – and have some of their excess mental and physical energy expended during a meal – that come hard-won out of a food toy. This is one way an owner can get the pet to eat the way it was designed to: find the food, manipulate the food, then eventually consume the food. This is the way of the natural world.


Meal-feeder food toys are numerous. Kongs are a great choice for the dog just starting to receive his meals from a toy. They are not difficult to manipulate and the food, unless the owner intentionally blocks the opening, falls right out. Kongs can be made to last longer if the contents are moistened then frozen, blocked in place by a treat or other large consumable, or hidden as part of a scavenger hunt.

Kong alternatives include the Kong Wobbler®, Kibble Nibble®, Tug-a-Jug®, Twist N Treat®, and slow-feeder bowl (not truly a toy, but with the same result). The likely ability of the dog to “solve” the puzzle of the toy and likely attempts to destroy it should be considered when choosing a food bowl replacement toy.

For cats (and maybe small dogs), Trixie Pet Products makes the 5-in-1 Activity Center. This plastic puzzle board comes with 4 removable food cups, little nooks for hiding food, and a series of obstacle courses through which the pet must push the food to access it.

For the owner who wants to keep Rover occupied while he/she runs errands or goes to work, The bowl-replacer toys still work great, especially if the pet’s morning meal can be held until the owner leaves. If the owner is leave at another time of the day, there are many treat-dispensing toys. Some, like the Foobler®, are timed to release treats at intervals chosen by the owner. Others, like the Pickle Pocket®, Amaze-A-Ball®, and Kong’s Genius® or Gyro® lines, are consumed whenever the dog chooses to use them.

Finally, for the owner who would like to use a food dispenser during training, items like Treat and Train®, Pet Tutor®, or Manners Minder® come to mind. For most of these, the owner holds a remote and triggers the release of food at the appropriate moment. They can also be set to dispense treats automatically on a timer. For some, like Pavlov’s Cat®, the pet manipulates something on the toy, with the owner’s encouragement, to release food.

With all of these options available, the average pet owner can really make the most of their pet’s food as a rewarding experience.

How Do I Choose A Good Dog Trainer?

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Dog mortarboard

Finding the right dog trainer can be the difference between success and bigger problems. Choose carefully!

Many of the dog owners I see in practice have been to obedience classes or worked with a trainer on a specific behavioral problem in their dogs. When the form they submit lists the trainer(s) they’ve used, I always find out everything I can about those trainers. Why? Because the owners probably listened to the advice given and the dogs were treated by these people. This can affect the dog’s current problems.

Some trainers are absolutely wonderful. They know dogs and dog owners. They have both innate and trained skills that allow them to target their training to specific needs. They understand learning theory, socialization, and public health. And they’re passionate about what they do.

Some trainers are not wonderful. They support the use of abusive techniques that were in practice in the early half of the 20th Century. They eschew treats as “spoiling” the dogs. They will claim they can solve any behavior problem. They tell the owners what medications they should demand from their vets. They often have no actual training of their own – they call themselves “naturals.”

Many, many trainers are somewhere in between.

So, understanding the trainer and her philosophy tells me if there are any “red flags” in a dog’s past training I should explore during the appointment.

I think it’s very important for all dog owners to know how to choose the right trainer for themselves and their dogs, should the need or desire arise. Use these simple guidelines and the right trainer should be within your reach:

  1. Do a basic Internet search for all the trainers in your area. If you live in a large metro area, you will scale back the search geographically or by Yelp review. If you’re rural, you may not be able to be picky about geographic distance from you. Please note, many training “chains” will advertise themselves in areas they do not even serve. The first thing you should look for in a candidate website is the actual service area.
  2. Look at the credentials of the 5-10 trainers you want to explore. Ideally, you will see letters like CPDT-KA or KPA-CPT. Dog training has no licensing, therefore, you want to search out trainers who demonstrate that they are continuing their education and following best practices in their field. Trainers who display Certified Professional Dog Trainer or Karen Pryor Academy credentials are demonstrating their willingness to have their knowledge and techniques judged by a body of experts in the field. Other training programs, like the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers, offer well-respected training courses but no national certification. It’s nice, too, if they joined the Association of Pet Dog trainers – but anyone can join and there is not assessment of knowledge or skills.
  3. Read up on each trainer’s philosophy. Some buzzwords you should know are:
  • Balanced Training. This term refers to the “balanced” use of reinforcement (treats, praise) for good behaviors and punishment (leash corrections, other “unpleasant” stimuli) for unwanted behaviors. Its use has increased with the popularity of Cesar Millan; and, like Millan’s methods, owners are to use a “firm hand” when correcting their dogs. The problem is that owners are notoriously bad at timing and choosing appropriate punishments. So, these methods exacerbate aggression and break down the relationship between the dog and the owner. What they typically don’t do is correct a behavior problem.
  • Remote Training. This means using a shock collar. Period.
  • Pack Leader/Alpha Training. Some misguided trainers still think of pet dogs as “pack” animals. Modern research negates this idea and modern training does not rely on it. Those trainers that want you to be “alpha” to your dog or the “pack leader” are likely to get you bit.
  • Protection Training. Did you adopt a Police dog? If not, please stay as far away from “protection” training as possible. Your precious poodle does not need to bite on command. But, neither does your Belgian Malinois.
  • Schutzhund Training. Like protection training, Schutzhund is used to train Police dogs. It can also be for search and rescue, basic obedience, odor detection, etc. The bottom line, though, is that most Schutzhund trainers still use aversive training methods. The time requirements and legal responsibilities of owning a dog that is trained to bite can also be prohibitive.

    A good trainer should be able to explain her training methods and philosophy in an understandable way. She should be able to demonstrate techniques in a way that owners can understand and copy. A good trainer should make an owner and their dog feel safe, welcome, and capable.

  1. Ask to visit a class conducted by a few of the trainers that interest you. If the trainer says “no,” drop that trainer from the list. If you like what you see in that class, look at schedules, fees, and other factors to choose the one that’s a best fit for you.

Choosing a trainer is a little like choosing and doctor or dentist. You want to know the schooling, philosophy, and “bedside manner” of your candidates before you commit. Ideally, you and your trainer will have many happy sessions with your increasingly well-behaved dog!


*** Thank you to my friend Nancy Abplanalp, CPDT, for her input!! ***

Why is My Dog Afraid of the Wind?

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Wind storm

Wind can trigger panic in some dogs, often taking owners by surprise.

I recently had a case of a dog that tried to escape the owners’ house or yard whenever the wind picked up. They live in Marin County, so there are several windy days per year. Any time there was more than a stiff breeze, one of the owners needed to rush home and make sure the dog was safe; usually that meant working from home for the rest of the day. These owners had that luxury – most don’t.

So, how did this happen? As in most cases of phobic responses to the wind, it didn’t start out as a fear of the wind at all. In this case, the dog was afraid of rain/thunderstorms and became very afraid during a recent rain storm. The owners were home and saw him looking for a good place in the house to hide. When he couldn’t find a place that made him feel better, he tried to break out of the house. These fairly savvy owners helped the dog find an interior closet and played white noise for him. Together, they weathered the storm and the dog seemed no worse for the experience… until the next big winds.

The owners were not expecting wind to be a big trigger for their dog, as is never had been before. But, the bad rain storm he experienced had big winds as a component; and the dog had become sensitized to the sounds. And, if you think about it, wind comes with many loud sounds. Beyond the whine and whistle of the wind itself, there are the sounds of garden items falling over, neighbors’ garbage cans rolling down the street, tree branches cracking and falling, and windows shaking during particularly strong gusts.

In this case, the diagnosis was straightforward: Storm phobia with sensitivity to wind. The progression seemed apparent to the owners once it was pointed out: He generalized his fear of thunderstorms to include rain, which always (in California) accompanies thunder. Then, since this rain storm was very windy, he generalized to include wind. Other problems to rule out would be generalized anxiety, noise phobia, and severe attention-seeking behavior. Noise and storm phobia differ from each other in the fact that storms are more than just the sounds that accompany them; some dogs are very sensitive to drops in atmospheric pressure, rapid ionization changes during lightning strikes, and the feel of wind and rain on their bodies. Noise phobic dogs are triggered mainly by the sounds themselves (usually lightning, fireworks, gun shots, and engines).

Treatment for phobia of the wind can vary, depending on other components of the phobia (thunder, etc.). In this case, it consisted mainly of desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) to the sounds of wind and thunder and medications to aid the process of DS/CC in this scared dog. Other options include relaxation protocols to train a calm response on command, nutraceuticals like l-theanine or a dog appeasing pheromone collar, or a tight wrap made for anxious dogs. The medication selected for this case was fluoxetine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, to be given every day. For days when wind was expected to be a problem, the dog was also given a benzodiazepine, which is a very potent and fast-acting (but short duration) inhibitor of anxiety; the most common of these in human medicine are Valium and Xanax.

In this case, treatment seems to be going pretty well and the owners are less panicked when they see wind in the weather forecast. If your dog, or one you know, is afraid of wind (or other facets of storms), please seek help from a veterinarian.

Why Does My Dog Bark?

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Whether it’s “just a breed thing” or there is some other cause, excessive barking can be stressful for the dog’s owners.

I recently had a case of a dog that barks excessively when the owner prepares to leave and while she is gone. The woman adopted the dog a few months ago and he started barking a month later. The neighbors in her condo complex are not overly pleased by this turn of events.

Barking is a normal means of communication among dogs. Humans can be the target of the communication, too, as we seem to respond very readily to it. In fact, studies have shown that the average human, when presented with the recordings of several types of dog barks (fearful/anxious, territorial, excited, begging, etc.), can accurately deduce the meaning.

Like so many other behaviors, excessive barking is generally a symptom of a larger problem, rather than an isolated problem behavior. Underlying causes can be anxiety, boredom, breed predisposition, something learned from another dog, attention seeking, etc. So, while many “solutions” have been developed, few of them work because they fail to ask and address the question, “Why is the dog barking?” A few popular no-bark “solutions” are anti-bark collars (citronella, shock, etc.), ultrasonic anti-bark devices, spray bottles, cans of pennies, and debarking surgery.

Why Dogs Bark

The reasons for barking and excessive barking are quite varied. “Acceptable” barking occurs as a warning of possible intruders or other dire situation, a brief invitation to come out and play (toward another dog or human), an expression of enjoyment during play, and a warning to approaching unfamiliar dogs that a fierce carnivore lives here. Although these barks sound different from each other (the forceful three-bark alarm when someone’s at the door vs. the high pitched excitement bark during play). But, what they have in common is that they are brief and transient, as the dog moves on to other behaviors.

The reasons dogs bark excessively are related to – but separate from – those listed above. These include:

  • Breed. I’m sorry to break it to you Beagle owners, but your dog will likely bark excessively. This is equally true of Cockers, Collies, Dachshunds, tiny terriers (Yorkie/Silky), Shelties, Dalmatians, and Miniature Schnauzers. It doesn’t mean that their barking cannot be controlled – just that it may be far more challenging.
  • Anxiety (Separation Anxiety/Noise Phobia/Confinement Anxiety). This type of barking occurs when the owners are not present; and these dogs desperately do not want to be alone. They are panicking, and use their voices to reach out to someone who might be able to help. The bark is often high-pitched, plaintive, and interspersed with whines.
  • Barrier Frustration. You’re in the house and your dog is outside (or vice versa); if this is a situation that upsets him, you may find that he barks until you are back together. This is separate and distinct from separation anxiety, in that, if you left the house completely, he’d be fine.
  • Boredom/Social Isolation. The bored or isolated dog spends a lot of time asking if there’s anyone out there, or answering similar calls from other bored dogs. The bark is usually a friendly invitation, but can be very insistent and frequent.
  • Social Facilitation. Some dogs bark excessively when they hear other dogs barking. We’ve all heard this – a dog walks into the neighborhood and all the dogs start barking, even though only one or two can actually see the “intruder” dog.
  • Territoriality. The territorial dog barks aggressively, often in a low pitch with growling, when a person or dog approaches or walks past the house. The barking is not a simple courtesy warning to the owner; rather, it continues until after the person leaves. The challenge here is that the delivery person/meter reader/passerby always DOES leave, consistently rewarding the dog for his efforts; don’t underestimate how rewarding this can be. And, however fierce these dogs sound, many of them are acting out of fear of the approaching stranger(s).
  • Response to Environmental Stimuli. Technically, territorial dog fit this category – but not all dogs responding to something/someone outside are trying to chase them away. Consider, for instance, dog that has seen a tree full of squirrels or the neighbor cat and can’t stop talking about it. These dogs are generally of a personality that finds many things exciting throughout the day.
  • Attention Seeking. These dogs bark to get the attention of their owners (usually) or other people who are consistently nearby (neighbors, for instance). This is the moral equivalent to the 5 year old child standing in front of his harried mother at the grocery store saying, “Mom, mom, mom, mom…” repeatedly. Dogs develop this kind of barking because they have been rewarded for it in the past, often by being scolded or yelled at; but, in their minds, any attention is good attention and yelling is good enough for them. This type of barking happens only in the presence of the owners or other human targets of the attention seeking.
  • Habit/Conditioned. Some dogs were raised in environments in which any amount of barking was perfectly acceptable (like a shelter) but now live in settings in which it is not (like a suburban neighborhood). Other dogs always go nuts when they hear the door bell or other specific noise stimulus.
  • Compulsive. Some dogs develop compulsive behaviors like tail chasing, light chasing, or fly biting. Others display their compulsivity through barking. These barking episodes are likely to happen whether or not the owner is home and are generally very unemotional and monotone in nature.
  • Old-Age-Related. Senior dogs suffering from cognitive dysfunction (a dementia-like condition) can bark constantly as one clinical sign of their cognitive decline. These dogs bark in a fairly monotonous way with no trigger at all. They sometimes cannot be aroused from their barking and are as likely to bark with or without the owner present.

Because barking is the primary means for dogs to communicate, you may guess that this list is not exhaustive.

How to Fix It

General Treatments

There are as many treatment plans as there are causes of excessive barking. Here are five general things that apply to all barking cases:

  • Identify the cause(s). You can treat what you haven’t diagnosed. See a specialist if you are truly stumped.
  • Don’t directly punish barking. Yelling or throwing a can full of pennies will not curb this behavior; and it may make things worse by exacerbating fear, rewarding attention-seeking, creating even more excitement, or triggering aggression.
  • Ignore attention seeking behaviors, including barking. Any attention is a reward and will encourage the behavior in the future.
  • Use a leadership program like Nothing in Life is Free or Learn-to-Earn to provide consistency and enhance your dog’s interest in listening to commands. To get the general idea, please see http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/dogs/tips/training_nothing_in_life_is_free.html or http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/the-learn-to-earn-program.
  • Make sure your dog has plenty to do, especially if you’re gone all day. Employ a doggy day care or dog walker, leave food toys filled with his breakfast, and make long walks and play time a priority.
  • Reward alternative behaviors. When your dog becomes quiet, praise him. When your dog walks away from something that usually makes him bark, praise him.

Specific Treatments

While these things should help in most situations, dogs with specific barking problems will need more:

  • Anxious dogs may need the support of a tool, like a dog-appeasing pheromone collar, diffuser, or spray; others may require medication.
  • Dogs that bark at people or animals outside the house may benefit from you blocking their access to those stimuli. You can use fences, opaque temporary window film, white noise machines, and other tools to avoid your dog being exposed to those triggers.
  • Dogs that bark mainly when the owners are home may benefit from being taught a “quiet” command. There are lots of web sites that show you how to do this. Some start with teaching a “speak” command while others don’t. Please don’t follow any protocol for teaching “quiet” that involves punishment or anything else aversive. One good choice comes from The Humane Society of the United States: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/dogs/tips/how_to_stop_barking.html
  • In some cases, if absolutely no anxiety is involved in the barking, the owners might try an automatic bark collar. The first trial should be something mildly aversive but not painful (citronella, canned air, etc.). If that does not work, the next level up is the automatic shock collar. There is always a risk with using a shock collar and this risk increases dramatically if any anxiety is involved. Anxious dogs exposed to shock may become more anxious. This can lead to more barking – or some other unwanted behavior, not to mention needless anguish for the dog.
  • If the dog is terribly anxious, medication and behavior modification is probably the best plan. This will be overseen by a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.

Many treatment plans will include more than one of these options.

Obviously, this is not meant to be a complete summary of the treatments available for dogs that bark excessively. Also, it is not meant to encourage dog owners to refrain from seeking veterinary care, diagnoses, and advice regarding these issues. But, knowing a bit more about why your dog may be barking can help you ask more informed questions during that vet visit.


Why Does My Dog Dig?

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You need to find out why a dog digs to stop him from digging

Someone recently asked me why her German Shepherd was digging holes in her garden. Surprisingly, I don’t hear a lot of complaints about digging, either because it’s the least of the worries of the clients I see or because people assume “it’s what dogs do.” But, here’s essentially what I told her:Until you figure out why your dog is digging, it is not easy to stop him. It’s surprising to me the number of punishment-based strategies out there to stop digging without removing the dog’s desire to dig. You might be advised to bury things like balloons, rocks, or mousetraps in the holes as booby traps. You might be told to fill the hole with water and hold your dog’s head in it until he fears for his life (no kidding) or even bury the dog himself in it. You might be told you need to build a fence or other barrier to keep the dog out of the garden. You may even be advised to use a shock collar any time you see him digging. Not surprisingly, these things are unlikely to resolve the problem permanently, as the dog will fulfill his desire to dig in some other way.There are many reasons, including:

To cool off or warm up. The ground maintains temperature better than air; so even a few inches below the surface, the earth is cooler in hot summer months and warmer in cold winter months. Dogs that are left out in these conditions may seek out something more comfortable than the air temperature.

To get some exercise. Dogs that do not get enough exercise through walks or play may burn off this energy and use their muscles by digging. This is especially true of very active breeds whose owners underestimate their dogs’ needs.

To get away. Dogs with separation anxiety or noise phobias can panic and try very hard to get out of the yard (toward people/comfort). The holes are usually near a fence or gate and often toward a neighbor’s house, where the dog feels he might be safe. Other signs may be damage to the fence/gate itself.

To get to something he wants. This could be a tree full of squirrels, gophers in your lawn/garden, the neighbor cat/dog, or any number of other things the dog finds attractive or wishes to neutralize. Again, the holes are usually directed toward a fence or gate in the region of the thing attracting the dog. You may even find holes close to the house if your dog is frequently relegated to the outdoors while you are in the house.

To bury his treasures. Some dogs seem to feel they can’t leave their toys, sticks, or bones above ground in case someone finds them. Suspect this if every hole has signs of something special in it.

This is not an exhaustive list and some dogs probably fall into multiple categories.

How to Fix It

You’ve probably guessed that this depends on the cause. If your dog has separation anxiety or noise phobias, get to your vet ASAP and get it treated. If the outdoor temperature is a problem, consider keeping the dog in the house more during extremes of hot and cold. If the dog is very energetic, commit to exhausting him at doggy day care, on longer walks, or through frequent play dates with other dogs. If he buries every treasure, give him only things that are not easily buried (little treats, food toys secured to something, etc.). If he is intrigued by things in the neighborhood, you may wish to confine him to the house, as the squirrels, neighbor dog, and school kids are beyond your ability to control. If he’s just trying to get in the house to be with you, find a way to let that happen. Finally, if your dog is truly a recreational digger (with no basic psychological need left unmet), you may set aside a spot in the garden that is your dog’s “digging box.” The area should have the loosest soil in the yard and plenty of shade to attract him there. Then he can dig to his heart’s content.

All that said, there will be some extreme dogs that cannot be deterred from digging for even a few minutes. If yours is one, see your vet to determine whether there is an obsessive quality to the digging and whether medications and a behavior plan might be the best solution.

If you have a digger, try not to be terribly frustrated. Sit down with the family to discuss what you know about when and where he digs.  Then solve the problem permanently by helping your dog meet his needs in other ways.

Stop Punishing Your Dog!

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If punishment doesn’t work, why is it so popular?

I find myself having to tell at least one dog owner every week that part of the prescribed behavior modification plan is to avoid all forms of punishment. Why? Because these owners, frustrated by their dog’s behavior problem, and not feeling they have many other resources, are turning to aversive methods in an attempt to solve the problem.

For me, punishment means: yelling, scolding, hitting/kicking, kneeing, neck/side jabs, using a shock collar, repeated corrections with a prong or choke collar, or pinning the dog to the ground (the “alpha roll” or “dominance down”). Sadly, this is by no means the full extent of the punishment the extreme owner will have applied. But this is a list of the most common punishments I hear about.

So, why do I ask that people stop punishing their dogs? For one thing, it hasn’t helped or they wouldn’t be coming to me to solve the problem. Second, humans are not particularly good at choosing or delivering punishment. Third, punishment doesn’t give the dog a clue how you would like him to behave in a similar situation. Fourth, it’s pretty dangerous, especially in those dogs presenting for aggression.

My first point is pretty self explanatory. “I see that you’ve been using a shock collar on Fluffy for two years, Mr. Smith. How’s that been working for you?”

My second point, that humans are terrible at punishing, is based on learning theory. For punishment to reduce the incidence of an unwanted behavior, it must have three characteristics: it must be suitable (the punishment should fit the crime); it must be immediate (during, or within a second or two after, the unwanted behavior); and it must be applied consistently. But we’re humans. Consistency is definitely not a hallmark of our species. As for immediacy, I regularly meet owners that punish their dogs for things that were done while they were at work. And, it’s really difficult to come up with a punishment that’s appropriate; some lovely 1950s-style choices come to mind: “rub his nose in it;” “hit him with a rolled-up newspaper;” “pinch his muzzle until he drops it.” Sigh.

My third point, that punishment doesn’t tell the dog what to do, comes primarily from seeing the effect of punishment on growling in dogs. Many of my clients whose dogs have bitten people complain that their dog gives no warning, so they feel they can’t readily prevent the bite. I always ask if there was ever a time the dog did growl. Some say no. But the majority of people say that the dog used to growl when he was younger. What did they do when he would growl? Most would yell or otherwise punish the dog. So, the dog learned that growling was not acceptable; in these cases, the punishment worked. Unfortunately, the dog still feels fearful/territorial/irritable/other and wishes that the dog/person causing this feeling would go away. But he knows not to growl. So he bites.

I like to say that behavior does not like a vacuum: if you tell your dog no about his current behavior, you leave it up to him to choose a replacement behavior; and he may pick one you don’t like – like biting. But, if you ask him to do this instead of that, you have chosen the alternative for him. Example: “Rover, sit” is better then “No!!” when a dog is jumping on people. In the case of the dog that growls, the actual solution lies in changing the dog’s feeling about the object of his aggression (helping him not feel fearful/territorial/irritable/other) and giving him a more acceptable behavior to perform. In the meantime, every owner should listen when his dog growls and separate the dog from the object of his aggression. This ensures everyone’s safety.

On my fourth point, that punishment can be dangerous: There was a very interesting study a few years ago by Ilana Reisner, Meghan Herron, and Frances Shofer of the University of Pennsylvania that questioned dog owners about “behavior modification techniques” they had tried before seeking the help of a veterinary behaviorist. The survey asked the owners to choose from a list of possible “interventions” used, to give the source of each selected intervention (owner’s own idea, a trainer, etc.), and to describe the dog’s response. The researchers found that and hitting/kicking and growling at the dog elicited aggressive responses in nearly half of the dogs on which they were attempted. And, alpha rolls/dominance downs and prolonged staring caused nearly 1/3 of the dogs to become aggressive toward the owners.

It’s likely that many of these very aversive techniques come from the misperception that the owner must assert his “dominance” to get his dog to obey. But, your dog “misbehaving” has nothing to do with either you not being forceful enough or him “challenging” you. Rather, it may be from a lack of real leadership on your part; or your dog may have fear/anxiety that must be addressed before he can comfortably obey your commands in a challenging setting.

The bottom line is: if good leadership (in the form of a program like Nothing in Life is Free or learn to Earn) is not sufficient to correct your dog’s behavior problem, find a qualified professional to help. If you turn to a trainer, be diligent in checking qualifications and philosophy (after all, it’s no better to have a trainer punish your pet). If your dog is fearful, and medications may be in his future, see your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.

A Note About Bark Collars. On one hand, bark collars appear to fit the definition of an effective punishment: the shock/spray is immediate and consistent, and some would argue that the aversive stimulus is appropriate. The question that is often overlooked is whether a dog should be punished for barking in the first place. In my professional opinion, barking is rarely controlled through punishment and should not be on a list of “punishable offenses.”

There are many, many reasons for a dog to bark: he may be issuing a warning; soliciting attention from people or other dogs; expressing his fear, pain, or boredom; engaging in a breed-specific social behavior (think Beagles); protecting his territory; etc. Punishment alone can exacerbate fear and pain and does nothing to alleviate any other cause of barking. Rather, if a dog is barking excessively, it is important to determine his motivation and correct this underlying cause. Fearful dogs must be treated for their fears. Bored dogs should go to doggy day care when their owners are at work. Beagle owners and their neighbors should get used to the sound of barking. Medical causes should be addressed.

Herron, ME, Shofer, FS, Reisner, I (2009), Survey of the use of outcomes of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. (117)47-54

Euthanasia: When it’s Time to Say Goodbye


The loss of a pet is hard. It is often made worse when we're faced with the decision to euthanize.

For me, one of the most challenging things about being a pet owner is the almost inevitable decision about when to euthanize the pet. We recently faced that very decision about one of our cats. She was a few short months shy of her 24th birthday; so, it was not a decision that took us by surprise. But, even as prepared as we thought we were, it was very difficult.

How will I know when it’s time?

This question haunts most pet owners. And, my best advice is to have a set of criteria for each pet species you have that reflects the minimum standards for an acceptable quality of life. For instance, you might expect your cat to be interested in eating, make it pretty consistently to the litter box, get around on its own, and seek out attention and purr when petted. In fact, those were our exact criteria for Chantal. For a horse, dog, or parrot, your criteria may be different. Each criterion should reflect some measurable aspect of welfare (comfort, adequate nourishment and hydration, acceptable hygiene, etc.).

Choose your criteria when your pet is young and healthy, so that you will not be tempted to ignore changes to “protect” an ailing pet.

Once you have set the criteria, any consistent drop below the standard in a given category will raise a red flag. For us, Chantal starting missing the litter box daily and began to be ataxic (stumbling) while walking around; both problems may have been due to worsening arthritis, a failing nervous system, systemic weakness, or some other process. In any event, we knew we had reached a decision point.

What will I do when it’s time?

When your pet reaches a quality of life you can no longer pretend is adequate, it is likely time to say goodbye. The most responsible plan of action is to schedule a “euthanasia consultation” with your vet; during this consult, your veterinarian will examine your pet, offer you any possible treatments for the problems you have noted, and, if nothing can (or should) be done, euthanize your pet. Relevant family members should attend this appointment in the event that it does, in fact, become an actual euthanasia. On the other hand, I have had a few clients book these appointments, braced for grief, only to leave with some antibiotics or fluid therapy for their very-much-alive pet.

What is euthanasia like and who should be there?

If you’ve never been present for the euthanasia of a pet and think you would like to be present for the next one, it’s a good idea to know what to expect.

When you arrive for the appointment, there will be a release form to sign and a discussion about what you would like done with your pet’s remains. Options generally include private cremation and group cremation; other options, like home burial, may be available in your municipality. You may take care of the payment in advance so that you will not be bothered with it after the pet is gone.

You and your pet will be taken into an exam room or a special room designated for euthanasia. A technician or the vet will get a weight and may do a brief exam. Following any discussion about whether continued treatments are possible or advisable, the staff may prepare for the euthanasia. Some clinics require a catheter to be placed in a leg vein to facilitate the process; others may not. Depending on how nervous your pet appears, staff may elect to give a sedative and give you a few minutes alone with your pet for the medication to take effect.

The actual euthanasia is performed using a strong sedative given in an amount that stops body functions. The veterinarian will have pre-measured the amount to be given based on your pet’s weight. He or she will give the drug slowly while you hold or pet the animal. During this process, your pet may make sudden movements, lose control of his bladder or bowels, or simply go limp. Even if unexpected movements do occur, the pet is not experiencing any discomfort. This is procedure is far more painful for the human participants than for the pet, who drifts gently away.

As for the question of who should be present: that depends on you, your family, and your support system. If your kids are old enough that they can understand what is happening and not be traumatized by the event, they may want to be there. If you have developed special relationships with clinic staff, you may wish to ask them to join you (in fact, if your pet has become a frequent patient, many of the staff may ask to be there with/for you). If you know you will be grieving extensively, you may wish to have a friend with you for the ride home.

What if I can’t bring myself to be present?

That’s fine. Your pet will pass just as smoothly without you. And, if you are someone who would be tortured by the memories of the event, he would rather not put you through that, anyway.

How will I react to my loss?

Depending on your personality, you may respond with anything from a little sadness to acute grief when your pet has gone. For pets that required extensive amounts of care, you may experience some relief at their passing; this is normal.

If you had a very intense attachment to the pet or are someone who naturally grieves deeply, the loss may be very difficult for you. There are pet loss support groups available to help you through your grief, if friends and family are not sufficient. The reality is that you may continue to experience and process your grief for months or even several years. If, at any time, you feel despondent, please seek professional help.

How we move on

As my husband likes to point out, “It all ends badly.” So how do you pick up the pieces and commit to yet another pet, knowing that this, too, will end badly? Again, we each approach it differently. Some people decide they’d rather not invest emotionally in another pet. Others are looking for a new furry friend right away. Then, there are those of us in the middle – knowing we’re a little worse for wear but also knowing that some other wonderful pet will find its way into our lives and hearts when the time is right.

Whatever type of person you are, one of the single most important things to keep in mind about euthanasia is that it is something we elect to do because we love our pets and want what’s best for them. Some people worry that they are rushing into an irreversible decision, when, in fact, our love for our pets and reluctance to lose them causes us to wait far longer than we should. One look at Chantal on her last day would have shown you what I mean.

Why is My Cat Not Using the Litter Box?


Not all cats like all types of litter boxes (or litters, or locations), no matter how convenient they are for the owners.

I posted previously about one specific reason that indoor house cats might urinate on surfaces other than the litter box. But, I still get many questions about cats peeing where they shouldn’t. So, this is part 2, if you will. For background information and specifics on feline idiopathic cystitis, please read my previous post.

So, you’ve been finding pee outside the litter box. You’ve taking the kitty (or kitties) to the vet to rule out infection, cancer, etc. What now? First, you’ll need to determine:

Is He Urinating or Spraying?

Urinating outside the litter box and spray/urine marking are two distinctly different problems with different causes and different treatments. So, to treat him effectively, we need to know for sure whether the kitty is peeing or spraying.

If you see it happen, this is an easy one: is he backing his little rear up to a wall or other vertical surface, twitching his tail, and leaving urine running down that surface? If so, he’s almost certainly spraying. If he’s marching over to the corner of the rug (or onto a pile of clothes, or 6 inches from the litter box, etc.), squatting nicely, and leaving a large volume of urine behind, he’s likely peeing.

What if you never see it happen? You can still make an educated guess about whether it’s spraying or peeing.

Spraying is most often reserved for vertical surfaces and is usually in small amounts. It often happens near doorways, under windows, or by stairs; unfortunately, it can also be aimed at new household items, electrical appliances, and other items of interest to the cat. Spray marking is a message left by one cat for other cats; so those socially significant, high-traffic areas are the best places to broadcast the message.

In contrast, urination is aimed at emptying the bladder fully and, if the cat is not painful or arthritic, is performed in a squatting position. This leaves all of the urine on the floor/carpet/pile of clothes. Often, the location will be a low-traffic area and a soft substrate. The message here is not to other cats, but to you: He no longer wishes to use his litter box. Now, you must find out why.

What if He’s Spraying?

Urine marking is a normal activity in wild and domesticated felines. But, it is not desirable indoor behavior. Whether indoors or out, it’s done as a signal to other cats; and this cat’s relationship to those other cats is key to diagnosis and early treatment. It is important to note that, contrary to what many people believe, females and neutered males can participate in urine marking.

Treatment for Spraying:

First, clean up all urine with a GOOD enzymatic cleaner. My personal favorite for urine is Anti-Icky-Poo.

Next, determine whether your other cats or outdoor cats (strays, ferals, neighbors, etc.) are stressing the spraying cat. If outdoor cats are annoying him (he’s spraying mainly around exterior passage ways or sits in the window, growling), there are two good options. You can block his visual access to these other cats by using an opaque window film.  You can also keep these cats out of your yard by using a remote animal repellent device, like the Scarecrow by Contech or Spray Away by Havahart.

If your other cats are the big stressors, there are ways you can help everyone get along. First, create a “house of plenty,” in which each cat has free access to food and water dishes, litter boxes, perching spaces, hiding spots, and any other valuable resource. The goal is to prevent any bully cats from keeping other cats from the resources they need or desire.

What if “other cats” is not the problem? Determine what other things may have caused this stress: new pet, missing pet, new baby, new home, new roommates (or roommates leaving), new furniture, etc. can all cause stress in a sensitive cat. If you can determine the problem, talk to your vet about ways to address it.

If you make these changes and do not see any reduction in spraying frequency, you can discuss medications with your vet. There are a few medications that have showed improvement in spraying when combined with the plans presented above.

What if He’s Urinating?

There are several reasons a cat may vacate the litter box in search of another potty location: aversion to or preference for a specific location, substrate, or type of box; problems with litter box cleanliness; or extreme anxiety or physical pain causing problems getting to the existing boxes. To find out which cause (or causes) applies to your cat, you need to do some homework and be creative about solving the problem.

First, you must determine whether the cat is avoiding the box because he does not like its size, shape, location, litter, cleanliness, etc., or because he has developed a preference for a new location or the substrate he has begun using (carpet and clothes are the most common). Please remember that many litters and boxes are designed and marketed for the convenience of the owner, not because they are the most desirable for the cats that use them (or don’t).

Take a Good Look at Your Current Litter Box(es):

Start by taking a good look at his litter box choices:

  • Size: Most cats prefer large, uncovered boxes; if the box is too tiny or the cover prevents the cat from keeping tabs on those who might be stalking him, it is less desirable. You cat does not care that this designer box looks far better to you than the big, open box he craves.
  • Litter: Cats generally like boxes filled with a couple of inches of unscented clumping litter. Crystals or other hard substrates can be a problem for those with sensitive feet. Litters with perfumes or those that smell too much of their source materials when wet, can be less desirable, even if they mask the urine smell better than unscented.
  • Cleanliness: Cats like clean boxes; ideally, they should be scooped daily and cleaned completely with dish soap and water every week or two.
  • Location: Cats prefer someplace with good ventilation, on the quiet side, and convenient to your cat. He would probably prefer that you not put any of his litter boxes in a closet (where you will forget to clean it), beside the noisy washing machine, in the darkest corner of the basement (where you don’t even like to go), or in the kids’ bathroom (where the comings and goings are far too unpredictable). Your older, arthritic cat would like a box on each level of your home, and one especially close to the place she sleeps most of the time.

So, how do your litter boxes compare? To tell the truth, one of ours is in the kids’ bathroom; but all of our cats (even the 23 ½ year old arthritic one) would die before they would “go” outside the litter box.

Maybe Litter Isn’t What He Wants

If you check out on all of the above, maybe your cat has developed a “substrate preference,” meaning that he simply prefers peeing in the rug/fabric/potting soil he has started using. To find out, give him three identical litter boxes. Fill one with the litter you already use. Fill the second with unscented clumping litter (unless that would be the same as box one). Fill the remaining box(es) with pieces of the substrate he is currently using. Yes, I am suggesting you put a carpet remnant, your pajamas, or potting soil in those remaining boxes. Then see what he uses. You may want to confine him to a smaller space, like a bathroom or bedroom, to force him to select from among these choices. If he chooses something other than the litter, you can “convert” him to litter by putting that item on top of litter and gradually removing it.

If he chooses litter, reassess the locations and cleanliness of the boxes he usually has access to.

Maybe He Doesn’t Like Where You Put the Boxes

Really, the only way to know is to try other locations. Start by putting one where he is already urinating. I’m sure you’re thinking that the location he’s chosen would be a terrible place for a litter box. But I hate to break it to you: as far as your cat is concerned, you already have one there. So, you may as well make it official. If he starts using the box in the new location, you may choose to reassess your aversion to having a box in the formal dining room/entry way/master bedroom. Alternatively, you can try to convince him that a similar location that you find more pleasing should be just as nice for him.

The Treatment for Litter Box Avoidance.

Clean the soiled area very well. Again, an enzymatic cleaner works best. Also, try Febreeze Pet Odor Eliminator for the area around the carpet that may have absorbed the smell.

Make area less desirable by putting food, a cat bed, or plant in each place your cat has chosen to urinate. Cats do not like to eliminate when they eat, sleep, or play. Alternatively, as noted above, you can give in and put a litter box there.

If none of these things works, see your veterinarian for more suggestions and to look again for medical explanations for the problem.

There is a great resource for cat and dog owners: www.indoorpet.osu.edu. This site focuses on understanding the particular issues that arise from keeping bright, active, and interactive pets inside our homes for extended periods of time. The suggestions for environment and behavioral enrichment are wonderful. Enjoy!

Why is my Brachycephalic Dog Having Trouble Breathing?

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Brachycephalic dogs can require special care to keep their breathing normal and healthy

I recently saw an English Bulldog as a patient. Despite the fact that I was treating him for generalized anxiety, the biggest challenge in the exam room was hearing the owner over the dog’s noisy breathing. Loud or difficult breathing is very common in a number of breeds that fall into the “brachycephalic,” or “short-headed,” category, which include the English Bulldog, French Bulldog, Boston Terrier, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Lhasa Apso, Shih Tzu, Pug, and Pekinese.

In fact, there is a medical condition named for this phenomenon: Brachycephalic Syndrome. Dogs that suffer from this condition often present to their veterinarians with stertor (a snoring sound while breathing), stridor (a high-pitched sound associated with breathing obstructions), shortness of breath or exercise intolerance, aspiration pneumonia, difficulty sleeping, or open-mouthed breathing. The number and severity of the issues can vary among individuals and over time for the same individual. The average age of onset of breathing problems is 3 years; and these problems often worsen with age.


When a brachycephalic dog is presented to the veterinarian for loud or labored breathing, the vet will begin to look for one or more of four physical anomalies that each contribute to the breathing issues and determine its severity. Anomalies include (from tip of nose to back of throat):

  • Stenotic nares. The two nostrils are narrower and droopier than in other dogs; this means that less air can enter the body with each breath.
  • Elongated soft palate. In these dogs, the soft palate can extend inches beyond where it should, allowing it to hang into the back of the mouth and partially block the air from reaching the trachea.
  • Everted laryngeal saccules. These saccules, which sit near the back of the throat, usually exist as pouches that invert into the sides of the mouth; if everted, they are inside-out and project into the airway, further interfering with air passage to the trachea.
  • Hypoplastic trachea. In some brachycephalic dogs, the trachea is narrower than one would expect for a similarly sized dog. This means that, even when the air negotiates the other obstacles, less of it can travel each breath into the lungs to provide oxygen to the body.

Some veterinarians maintain that collapse of the cartilage of the larynx or trachea may also contribute to brachycephalic syndrome; but we will limit our discussion to the four elements listed above.

Although it’s possible to identify the more superficial problems during a routine exam, general anesthesia or deep sedation is often required for a complete exam. X-rays of the chest may help to see tracheal narrowing and aspiration pneumonia.

Aside from the everted saccules, these anomalies are congenital, meaning that the dog is born with them. Most dogs diagnosed with brachycephalic syndrome have more than one of these problems; some unlucky dogs have all four.


Oxygen therapy and anti-inflammatory doses of steroids can provide short-term relief of breathing problems in these dogs. Long-term relief requires surgical intervention. In the case of stenotic nares, the openings of the nostrils can be made larger and any extra tissue removed. Elongated soft palates can be trimmed to a more typical length. Everted saccules can be removed. Sadly, nothing can be done surgically to enhance a narrow trachea.

For some severely affected dogs, these surgical corrections may not provide sufficient relief, and the dog may continue to have difficulty getting enough oxygen. In those cases, the dog may require a permanent tracheostomy, which is a hole in the trachea that is sutured open to provide an unobstructed airway to the lungs. Permanent tracheostomies carry serious risks, including increased threat of foreign-body inhalation and almost-certain drowning if the dog ever decides to submerge itself in water.


Most preventative measures need to happen before adopting a dog:

  • First, determine whether a brachycephalic breed is right for you. However cute you may think your aunt’s French Bulldog is, you need to be prepared to deal with possible breathing problems.
  • Then, find a breeder that carefully chooses sires and dams that are minimally affected; this is a challenge, given the relatively late onset and progressive nature of the problem, paired with a tendency of breeders to mate younger dogs.
  • Once you have adopted the puppy, accustom him to a walking harness, so that no undue pressure is placed on his trachea when he pulls against his leash.
  • Walk your dog during the mildest temperatures of the day and monitor carefully for panting and shortness of breath. The irony is that laryngeal saccule and cartilage problems appear to be exacerbated by harsh breathing, which is the very condition they cause; minimizing exercise when the weather is hot or humid can also minimize breathing difficulties in the first place.
  • Keep your dog lean. Excess weight puts an extra strain on an over-taxed respiratory system.

If, despite precautions, breathing problems do arise, seek veterinary assistance sooner rather than later.

One thing I get asked a lot is whether changing breed standards would correct this problem; my answer is, “I don’t know.” While there is no doubt that breeding for the extreme short noses of the affected breeds is directly responsible for the physical changes that cause brachycephalic syndrome, it’s not clear whether changing breed standards for the these breeds would actually lead to reversal of these problem traits. As far as I can tell, a push toward ethical breeding of only those individuals that appear to be free of problems and neutering of affected individuals is the current plan.

For those owners whose dogs are suffering from this condition, or those wishing to see images of the anomalies and surgical corrections, please see http://www.acvs.org/AnimalOwners/HealthConditions/SmallAnimalTopics/BrachycephalicSyndrome/.

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