Drop It!

One wonderful option for owners interested in playing with their dog is tug-of-war, but tug toys (e.g., ropes or stuffed toys) have a bad reputation because some owners have heard that tugging with their dog will make their dog aggressive. This is one of many old dog training myths that still hold sway. Rest assured, however, research has since demonstrated that tugging with a dog does not create aggression – in fact, even when you let the dog win by taking the toy, all he or she tends to do is bring the toy back for more tugging!

 It is true that you should not play tug-of-war with a dog if she is already aggressively possessive of her toys. However, if your dog has never shown aggression in the past, tug games can be played safely, as long as your dog reliably responds to the “Drop It” command.

 Here’s how it works: Keep some treats in your pocket as you play. Tug for a few minutes and then, while tugging with one hand, remove a treat from your pocket with your other hand. Bring the goodie to your dog’s nose, and say, “Drop it” in a happy, clear voice. It is likely that your dog will release the tug toy in exchange for the treat. When she does so, praise her and deliver the treat as you remove the tug toy. Then resume toy play.

 Over time, your dog will begin to release the toy as soon as she sees you moving your hand toward her with the treat (while saying “Drop it” each time). After several repetitions of this, start to say “Drop it” as soon as you reach into your pocket, then deliver the treat if she releases the toy to you. Your dog should soon release the toy at the “Drop it” command.

Soon, you can start to offer praise alone for relinquishing the toy about half of the time, with praise plus treat being delivered the other half of the time. Continue to praise each time she drops the toy, but gradually reduce the number of times you actually provide a treat, so that she ultimately will drop the toy in exchange for praise alone and more tug play.

 Indoor chase games are also great fun for dog and owner alike, and they are a way to provide more aerobic exercise than tug play. The same “Drop It” training can be used to teach your dog to drop a ball she has retrieved. Yet many owners find themselves chasing after their dog as she runs with the tennis ball in her mouth, refusing to relinquish it.

Of course, this is great fun from the dog’s perspective, but often less so for owners. Begin to offer a treat in exchange for the ball as described above. Remember: if you get rid of the treats all at once, she may stop releasing the ball to you. However, if you keep her guessing as to whether she will get a treat on any particular drop of the ball, she will continue dropping in hopes of a treat each time. Of course, for some dogs, the ball is infinitely more exciting than any treat you could offer. In cases like this, you will need to get more creative in teaching the “Drop It” command. For example, you could throw her second-favorite toy and trade her when she returns for her favorite toy of all. Next month, we will work through a behavior case in which the “Drop It” command became the most important tool in one owner’s dog training toolkit!


Teaching Verbal Cues to your Pet: How to Make your Words Matter, Part 2

Last month I introduced three categories of words that are of relevance to our pets when we talk to them. Here I will briefly review the definition of each and provide instructions on how best to teach your pet to respond to words in each of these categories.

1) Conditioned reinforcers: words become conditioned reinforcers when they are consistently paired with the delivery of things our pets love (that is, positive reinforcers). We talk to our pets all the time, often using praising words and often while petting, feeding, or playing with them. Yet for a word to function best as a conditioned reinforcer, you should choose one word (or sound) that you use intentionally each time you deliver a treat during early training. The advantage of choosing a short, specific word is that it will make the association between the word and the food treat more precise and salient, and thus empower the word more effectively later. For example, if you are teaching your dog to Sit when you say “Sit”, you should begin by saying “Yes!” each time you deliver the food reward to your dog when she sits. With these repetitions of “Yes!” + food treat, the word “Yes!” will become rewarding in itself. Soon, you will be able to use the word “Yes!” to reward behavior you like even when you don’t have a treat on you. (Of course, if you only say “Yes!” thereafter without occasionally pairing “Yes!” with treats, it will lose its rewarding value over time, so be sure to provide reminder sessions here and there, pairing the word with treat deliveries.)

2) Conditioned punishers: words become conditioned punishers when they are consistently associated with the delivery of something unpleasant or undesirable. If your dog jumps on you, you might say “No” and turn your back or walk away for a brief timeout from attention. If you repeatedly use “No”, in the same tone and always followed immediately by a timeout from attention, then the word “No” should come to serve as a word with corrective value. You should find over time that you need not walk as far away for the timeout, or even turn your back at all, as your dog learns what “No” means and learns to discontinue his jumping in response to your word alone. (Note: It’s not recommended that you use this procedure on its own without a positive reinforcement plan also in place for teaching him what you want him to be doing instead of jumping!)   

3) Discriminative stimuli: words become discriminative stimuli when your pet learns that listening to your cue or command results in positive reinforcement and thus begins doing what you ask. For example, if you teach your cat that each time she comes to you when you call “Fluffy, Here!” she will receive a play session with her favorite toy, you may find that she learns to come readily when you call her this way. We would then say that your cue (“Fluffy, Here!”) has become a discriminative stimulus. If you call her in the same way only when you want to give her a bath or trim her nails, however, you will likely see that she stops coming when called. In this case, your words no longer promise positive consequences for her if she does what you ask, and thus she is unlikely to respond to the call any longer.

No matter what type of word you are trying to teach your pet, it is important that you use the word in a consistent way. Because we casually converse with our cats and dogs so often throughout the day, many words can get lost in the jumble of conversation. Choose a few key words – those that communicate the basic cues you want your pet to learn and those that convey to your pet that you are pleased or displeased by his or her behavior. Then, by using positive reinforcement carefully and consistently, you can be well on your way to having an attentive, well-behaved, and happy animal companion!

Teaching Verbal Cues to your Pet: How to Make Your Words Matter

Dogs and cats are social animals who can learn easily to respond to many of our words, gestures, and body language cues throughout any given day. In some cases, our pets learn our words so well that we end up having to spell them out when communicating with other people in the family. (“John, we need to take the dogs for a W-A-L-K before we leave for dinner tonight.”) In other cases, we wish our pets would respond better to certain words (like “Get down!” or “Come!”) and wonder if they can understand us at all! How is it that our pets learn to respond to our words and how might we best teach them?

First, it’s important to note that while dogs and cats can differ in their level of social interest in following human cues and directives, they do not differ fundamentally in the way that they learn. Therefore, while many pet owners assume that dogs can be taught all sorts of cues or commands, the presumption is often that cats are a lost cause and cannot learn similar cues. In fact, cats can learn many of the same cues as dogs, as long as we have control over other motivating tools we can use to teach them. Nonetheless, much recent research in canine cognition has highlighted the unique predilection that dogs have in responding to human cues, perhaps due to their extensive history living alongside and even sharing tasks with humans (e.g., hunting or herding).

Second, there are features of our communication style that make as much difference to our pets as the specific words we use. Thus, if a word if spoken in a threatening voice, it can come to mean something very much different than the same word spoken in a happy voice. And body language cues are often even more important than our words altogether. Research has shown, for example, that when an owner provides a verbal cue (“Sit”) with a conflicting gestural cue (the hand signal for Lay Down), dogs are more likely to follow the hand signal than the verbal cue and thus lay down instead of sitting. You can easily imagine all the many styles we use when communicating with our pets if you’ve ever watched someone trying to call their off-leash and distracted dog – the happy and upbeat “Fluffy, Come!” from across the meadow soon turns to the low-pitched and threatening, “Fluffy Elizabeth Johnson, you get over here right now!”

Regardless of whether your pet is a dog or cat or seems especially attuned to you or not, it’s important to have an understanding of why and how our pets come to pay attention to some of our words and not others. This month we will introduce the categories of words our pets respond to and next month we will review how to best teach them. There are four general categories into which our words should fall.

1) Conditioned reinforcers: words become conditioned reinforcers when they are paired with the delivery of things our pets love (that is, positive reinforcers). For example, when your dog trainer instructs you to say “Yes!” or “Good!” each time your dog follows a command or cue in dog training class, and to deliver a treat just as or just after you do, he or she is teaching you to establish that praise word as a conditioned reinforcer. In our natural interactions with our pets, our words become conditioned reinforcers as well when they are associated with the delivery of good things. Establishing clear conditioned reinforcers can be very helpful in formal and informal training and behavior modification because they serve to mark the moment when we see a response that we like and communicate to the animal that he or she has behaved in a commendable way. For example, when I throw a toy into the woods for my rat terrier mix, Amelia, she may search around for awhile if she lost sight of it. If I see her in the area of the toy, I will say “Good girl!” and she will immediately focus on that spot, searching more carefully there for the toy. She has learned that “Good girl!” usually means she gets a treat or petting and so the words serve to let her know even in other situations that she is doing something good.  

2) Conditioned punishers: words become conditioned punishers when they are associated with the delivery of something unpleasant or undesirable. For example, when we say “No” or “Ah ah” each time our dog jumps, we reduce the frequency of jumping as long as we associate the “No” with a timeout from attention. The timeout from attention may be the essential ingredient in reducing the jumping over time, but the “No” is given meaning during that process as well. Thus, in other contexts or in response to other behavior, we can say “No” and the dog will quit whatever he is doing at the time. For the many owners who complain that their dog has no concept of “No”, it’s often because the word itself has not been systematically associated with something that would matter to the dog. In such circumstances, the dog is not being intentionally defiant or dominant – he or she simply doesn’t understand the word in the way that we mean to be using it.

3) Discriminative stimuli: words become discriminative stimuli when they teach an animal that when they hear this word and respond accordingly, their behavior will be rewarded. When you call your dog to Come and provide praise and treat or a ball throw each time she comes, the word gains meaning because of the positive consequences that follow her coming when called. Most of what we call commands or cues are discriminative stimuli when they have been taught using positive reinforcement. Unintentional sounds can just as easily become discriminative stimuli as well. For example, when your cat comes running when she hears the electric can opener, it’s because the can opener sound has become a discriminative stimulus meaning, “Come to kitchen quick because food will be served!”

4) Neutral: words that are neutral are those that have no specific history of being repeatedly or systematically associated with anything of interest to the animal, and these words would be expected to produce no response at all. Most of our hundreds of thousands of spoken words each day pass right through our pets’ worlds, without even causing a lifted ear or a pause in play.   

The New Addition: Pet Aggression toward Baby

Last month I reviewed some strategies for preparing your pet to welcome home a new baby. As I discussed, most of these introductions go smoothly and dogs, cats, and kids grow up happy and healthy together. In some cases, however, the dog or cat may show some worrisome behavior when meeting a new baby and some of these situations can be quite serious indeed. When a dog or cat shows aggression toward a baby, for example, the new parents are often faced with some very difficult decisions that may include keeping the baby and animal separated or even permanently rehoming the animal.

For most dogs and cats, a baby or child is not automatically lumped into the same category as an adult. While they have the same general body structure and share many characteristics with their grown parents, babies and children sound, move, and interact with the world in ways that are quite distinct from those of adults, and our companion animals can be attuned to these differences. Babies make strange, high-pitched wailing sounds when they cry (and boy, do they spend a lot of time doing that!), they flail their arms and legs about in jerky, kicking motions, and they spend all their time laying down for the first several months. These physical differences can be alarming to some animals, who may respond with defensive aggression when they are near the baby. In other cases, the baby’s sounds and small size seem more like that of a possum than a person, triggering dangerous predatory instincts in dogs and cats. When warning signs of aggression toward babies or children are observed, it is essential that pet owners seek an immediate assessment and behavioral intervention from a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or board-certified veterinary behaviorist.

What might a warning sign of aggression look like? In dogs, fear or discomfort is often first expressed as stiffness in the dog’s body or facial expression. If we observe the dog closing her mouth, tightening her cheeks, pinning her ears or moving them into forward alert position, or raising her tail over her back, especially when these body language indicators are specific to the baby’s presence or proximity and are associated with other changes in her focus or demeanor, we have cause for concern. Other more obvious signs include growling or piloerection (the dog’s hackles go up.) Even a dog who is avoidant of the baby, choosing to move away whenever the baby is nearby, may have aggression potential in future moments when the dog perceives that her opportunity to escape from the baby is blocked or impaired in some way. Either anxious or potential predatory behavior may be exhibited in the form of intense watching of the baby, startling or quick movements in response to the baby’s cries or movements, barking at the baby, or engaging in more nipping or herding behavior toward other targets while the baby is around. In any of these cases, behavioral intervention should be arranged.

A cat who is uncomfortable around a baby may be more likely to avoid the baby altogether than a dog would, and may even hide completely for some time after the baby has arrived. Of greater concern is the cat who spends time around the baby but with aggressive body language that might include pupil dilation, tail thumping, skin rippling or twitching, and/or whiskers forward and extended. A cat who is otherwise tolerant of petting by her owners but who becomes easily agitated or aggressive while petted when the baby is nearby may be displacing tension caused by the baby’s presence onto her caregivers.


If your dog or cat shows any signs of tension, fear, or aggression toward your baby, of course your first step is to securely separate the animal from the baby and seek out the services of a CAAB or vet behaviorist. Your behaviorist will assess the situation in detail and provide individualized treatment recommendations. In many cases, when it is deemed safe to have the baby and animal in the same space, the behaviorist will recommend a systematic desensitization program for fearful animals. In these cases, the behaviorist and owner work together to create a series of steps allowing graduated exposure while providing continuous access to positive and relaxing stimuli for the animal. For example, we might work with the pet behind a gate in the kitchen and the baby with another adult in the living room, providing the pet’s favorite toys, treats, and massage while the baby is in sight or sound of the pet. Only when the pet shows reliable and sustained calm demeanor at this level would we move, for example, to having the animal on leash with one owner while a second adult is with the baby in the same room. Details of these behavior plans are developed on a case by case basis, with safety for the baby always the first priority.

In cases where the animal continues to show predatory interest in the baby (that is, he or she perceives the baby as a critter to be chased or attacked), rehoming is often the only safe and practical outcome for many families. In cases where nonpredatory aggressive responding persists even after appropriate behavioral intervention, the animal behaviorist works with the family to determine long-term safe management options and coaches the family through choices that may have to include muzzling, physical separation, or rehoming. Such choices, while necessary for the safety of the baby, are emotionally devastating for many families, and ongoing coaching and guidance from an animal behaviorist can be key in helping the family work through this difficult situation.      



The New Addition: Introducing Pets to a New Baby

For many, bringing home a new baby constitutes one of life’s most significant and memorable events, in terms of the deep joy and excitement it brings and also the stress and worry it often manifests. Amid all of the new routines and responsibilities, the worrying about the baby’s well-being, and the sleepless nights, many new parents find themselves quite exhausted for those first few months. For those who also worry about how their pet dog or cat will respond to the new arrival, the stress can be overwhelming.

Luckily, most dogs and cats happily accept a new baby into the fold and introductions are easy and seamless. The pet might spend a bit of time sniffing the newcomer, curiously examining the toes wiggling around in the swaddling blanket or maybe sneaking in a lick across that downy soft bald head. For dogs and cats that have been around babies and children before, or who have easy-going, relaxed, and resilient behavioral styles of interacting with the world, this tiny bundled-up human may barely merit more interest than that first exploratory sniff. For others, however, the new addition may represent more of a challenge.

Over the past two decades, I have worked with many families whose primary concern was the introduction of their new baby to their pet(s). In some cases, I am brought in during the pregnancy to help the family prepare the home and the pet before the due date arrives. In other cases, I am called in soon after the baby has come home, typically because the family has observed their pet behave around or toward the baby in a way that has made them nervous or uncomfortable. In this month’s column, I will review strategies for preparing your dog or cat for the arrival of a baby beforehand. Next month, I will discuss how to respond if undesirable behavior is observed once the baby comes home.

Many young couples adopt or purchase a dog or cat during the early years of their relationship. For some, the dog or cat is the unintentional “practice round” before children. The pet serves as a bonding force, bringing couples together in their shared love of animals and their desire to be caretakers, while allowing some of the freedoms in schedule and lifestyle that young adults value. In some cases, that pet meets all of a couple’s needs for companionship and caretaking for a lifetime. For others, joint pet ownership is followed by the jump into parenting. What this can mean for many dogs and cats is that they have lived half their lives or more with their devoted - and childless - people. They may not have been around babies or children up to this point, as their people had socialized with other “pre-parent” folks. Perhaps they saw children at family reunions or at the park, but many pets in these circumstances have had limited exposure to babies or children in the home when their caretakes reach the point where they are ready to become parents themselves.

As I often tell worried parents, however, there is usually little to fear in bringing baby home. Even for dogs and cats not exposed to babies before, the infant who comes home at 2 days of age is minimally threatening or distressing to our animals. He or she comes home in a car seat or in arms, bundled in blankets and with no mobility other than some waving arms and legs. An infant in this way is typically much less of an immediate concern to dogs and cats than would be a toddler, preschooler, or elementary school aged child. The fast movements, strange noises, and unpredictable behavior of older children can lead to tension, fear, or even aggression in some animals while the relatively sedate newborn is much easier to adjust to. Nonetheless, it’s important to prepare the pet for baby’s arrival with some relatively easy accommodations and training exercises in advance.

First, be sure that you have unpacked and set up baby furniture and other items in advance. If your pet is allowed to explore with its nose all of the new baby-related items in advance, then there will be less interest in these items when baby comes home. If your dog or cat is a chewer of toys, or has a hard time knowing what belongs to him or her, you might keep the baby toys that look just like dog or cat toys out of your pet’s reach and behind a baby gate to the nursery, for example. I also encourage parents to role play some of the activities they will engage in at high rates when the baby comes, and to practice these before their due date so as to teach their pet that these activities are a cue for the pet to find something else to do. For example, if the parents plan to feed the baby in a rocker, I would have them sit in the rocker and read a book or rest while rocking a bit. They should provide their dog or cat with a favorite toy or activity feeder in advance if their pet is high energy or clingy. If their pet seeks their attention by trying to jump on their lap, bark at them, or nudge their arm, for example, they should say “No” in a neutral voice or turn away so that their pet can learn that “rocking chair time” is not a time for them to seek and receive lots of attention from their owner. With two parents on the scene, one parent could teach the pet that this is a time instead for a walk or toy play while the other parent feeds the baby. It can be difficult for our pets if they have always snuggled in the rocker with us, for example, and now we suddenly have a baby in arms who cannot be stepped on or moved aside. So it’s beneficial to prepare the pet for these periods of independence before the due date.

If there are any known triggers for fearful or defensive behavior in your cat and dog, such as bicycles, novel or high-pitched noises, or nighttime movements in the home, you should be prepared to address this before the baby comes. Remember that you might be using a stroller near the dog, the baby or her toys make new and squeaky noises all the time, and you will be up and about in the night like you likely haven’t been before. You should work with a board-certified animal behaviorist in advance to desensitize your pet to these stimuli, so as to replace nervous reactions with content and relaxed ones before baby comes home.

Finally, be sure that your pet responds reliably to your verbal cues around the house such as “Sit,” “Go to Place” or “Lay Down”, and “Come.” Well before your baby’s arrival, you should work with a qualified dog trainer who can effectively utilize positive reinforcement to teach you and your dog how to communicate effectively on these basic tasks amid mild in-home distractions.   


Owner-Directed Aggression

Last month I reviewed a case in which a dog was biting and nipping at his owner because this behavior produced attention from her. The owner at first feared her dog was being truly aggressive and was comforted to learn that the behavior, while inappropriate and bothersome, was not vicious or especially difficult to fix. Once we were able to find a way to reward appropriate behavior while ensuring that the nipping and biting no longer produced any response from the owner, the issue was soon resolved.

There are other cases, however, where a dog’s nipping and biting at the owner are not designed to get attention – quite the contrary, in fact. In these cases, which strike me as more appropriately labeled aggression, I meet dogs who have learned to use aggression to get out of situations that make them nervous or uncomfortable. Common scenarios include dogs who bite when their owners try to clip their nails, take off or put on a body harness or collar, move them off a bed or lap, or restrain them in some way. While the owners are not hurting their dogs in these situations (save for the occasional, accidental clipping of the nail’s quick or pinching of an ear while clipping a collar), they are requiring their dogs to do something that temporarily makes the dog less comfortable than he or she was before. If a dog is snuggled in a soft couch cushion and an owner scoops her up, the dog may feel momentarily put off and respond with a growl or snap. A dog’s individual disposition combines with her learning experiences to create some cases where the growl escalates over time to snapping or biting and may generalize to other circumstances as well.

These are instances of aggression we might call escape-maintained. In other words, the dog uses aggression as a way to try to escape from, delay, or minimize the intrusion or discomfort of the moment. In these cases, to use a timeout (saying “No” and walking away, as we discussed in last month’s column) might only reward the behavior further – after all, the dog wants the owner to stop and walk away in that moment! And yet, to push through with the nail clipping or scooping off the couch even after the dog has snapped or growled might lead the dog to escalate his aggression, resulting in a bite to the owner. Therefore, we must find a better way to reduce this aggression while also keeping owners’ fingers safe from sharp canine teeth!

To do this successfully and with behavioral improvements that will persist over time, we must teach the dog what we want her to do and reward her for doing it. Let’s take the example of the dog who snaps when her owner tries to move her from a comfortable resting place on the couch. In this case, the couch was already warm, cozy, and rewarding for the dog. Being scooped up and set on the floor or even into an owner’s lap requires a brief loss of that cozy resting place. We must teach the dog that getting up from her resting place when she is called by her owner results in other advantages that can compete with the loss of that warmth and comfort. Thus, I would teach the owner to call her dog to her whenever she walks into a room and the dog is on the couch. The dog would earn a treat each time she comes and sometimes also a walk, a meal, or a squeaky toy. Then I would have the owner sit down on the couch and call the dog back to her to sit in her lap or next to her on the couch. In this way, the owner has made the dog move using her words instead of needing to physically move the dog (therefore showing even better control over the dog’s behavior), and the dog is happy to hop down and never thinks about using aggression in the first place because getting down produces a reliable positive consequence!

In the case of putting a harness on or nail clipping, I have owners practice similar strategies – rather than just expecting their dog to naturally enjoy or simply tolerate these routines, owners are taught to reward their dogs each time these things are done at first. When we see that the aggression drops away and the dog begins to look happy and relaxed during these routines, we then work on moving the reward to an intermittent schedule – one where we might not reward every time but continue to reward often enough that the dog remains happy and motivated to go along with the routine forever after.

Is Every Dog Bite Aggressive?

I received the call late on a Friday and the woman’s voice on the other end of the line sounded frantic. “I need you to come out as soon as possible! I adopted a dog three days ago and he’s being really aggressive – he bites me so much that I’m afraid of him and think I need to return him to the shelter!” Shana described her 2-year-old rescue, Tracker, as a 50-pound black Lab mix who’d been turned in to the shelter with no back story. Shana met him at the shelter and thought he seemed like a great match for her. Tracker was friendly and affectionate with Shana and looked active and healthy. Shana was an avid hiker and was pleased to hear that Tracker did well with other dogs and had shown no signs of aggression toward people, dogs, or cats during his time in the shelter. Within a day or two after adoption, however, Tracker had begun jumping on her, biting her legs and arms while growling or barking at her.

When I met Tracker and Shana at her home a few days later, Tracker was there at the door, his nose at my chin and his toenails at my chest as Shana tried to wrestle him back by his collar. He was panting and barking and wiggling all over the place as Shana apologized and called his name and scolded him all at once. I had Shana provide Tracker with a new bone stuffed with yogurt so that we could talk while Tracker quickly got down to the business of his bone. I immediately recognized in Tracker many positive, prosocial signs that were promising. Shana described how Tracker had not barked or growled at anyone he met, and only seemed to be “aggressive” toward her.

After we’d chatted a bit and Tracker finished his bone, I asked Shana to show me how the biting behavior usually began. “Oh, that’ll be easy,” she said as she stood up, “all I have to do is move around the room and he will start.” Sure enough, Tracker approached Shana immediately and jumped on her. She pushed him down and he immediately began biting at her sleeves. She yelled “No!” and tried to move away while Tracker became increasingly animated, biting at her pants and legs, bouncing up and down on all four paws, and barking at her. She kept turning to him to scold and push him down and he just kept coming back for more.

Observing Tracker’s body language led me to believe that his intentions were social and playful rather than fearful, defensive, or aggressive. He was putting teeth on her, even leaving marks on her arms, so it was true that he was biting her. But his face was soft, his mouth open with tongue hanging out, his eyes and ears in an animated but playful expression. Shana explained that she had always responded as she was right then – by pushing him down and scolding him – but the behavior was only getting worse.

My hypothesis was that this behavior was attention-seeking behavior. Tracker was using jumping and mouthing as a way to interact with Shana, and her attempts to scold or push him down were only further rewarding the behavior. I asked Shana to practice with me how to use a timeout from attention for this behavior instead. To do this, Shana was instructed to say “No” in one short voice and turn her back on Tracker each time she felt his nails or teeth on her body. If Tracker jumped on her back or bit at her legs, Shana was to continue moving away to the nearest separate space she could find (e.g., a bathroom, stepping over a baby gate) so that there was no opportunity for Tracker to see her face, hear her voice, or be in contact with her body for at least 10 seconds after each instance of jumping or biting. If she returned and he jumped or bit again, she was to repeat the 10-second timeout.

I also taught Shana how to reward with attention other behavior from Tracker that was more “polite.” For example, when Tracker walked up to Shana (and before a jump or bite occurred) or when he looked lovingly at her from across the room, Shana was to pet and praise him, invite him for a walk on some occasions, bring him a toy to play with, or praise and offer a piece of kibble from her pocket. In this way, we were teaching Tracker more desirable ways to reliably get attention from Shana while also ensuring that jumping and biting no longer produced any attention at all.

By our second session two weeks later, Tracker’s jumping and biting had decreased dramatically. Shana still had to use the timeout here and there (for example, when getting ready to go for a walk or when she first got home from work) but he was quitting as soon as she said “No” most of the time and was not nearly as persistent as he’d been when she began the timeout. She also was able to provide lots of attention each day by catching Tracker being calm and going to him during those moments instead.

In this case, while it was true that Tracker was biting Shana, I would not characterize the behavior as aggression.  While his behavior certainly was overzealous and problematic for Shana, it also was playful. In cases of true aggression in dogs, we see behavior like growling, lunging, and biting that is designed to get someone to go away or stop what they are doing. Tracker, on the other hand, wanted as much of Shana as she could give him, and he was just asking for it in all the wrong ways.


When Cats and Crates Clash

Cat owners Chris and Jess called me in to help them with their beloved 6-year-old cat Minnie. Chris and Jess had adopted Minnie from a foster program when she was a year old. She had been virtually feral, with very little socialization prior to that time. Soon after they adopted her, Chris and Jess realized that vet visits were going to be very difficult due to Minnie’s fear of being scooped, captured, crated, transported, and handled at the veterinary hospital. She had been medicated and wrapped in a towel for one visit but even this was very difficult for the owners and vet staff to implement. By the time I was called in, Minnie was overdue for veterinary care (vaccines, physical exam) and the owners reported that their last attempt to capture her had produced so much distress (running, yowling, and scratching) that they were reluctant to try it again.

In fact, Minnie was not comfortable with touch under most circumstances. Over the five years since she'd been with Jess and Chris, Minnie had learned to tolerate petting on the back and head and would approach her owners to rub on their legs or sit near them on the couch. But she would still dart away when they tried to touch her belly (especially in a "scooping" position) or put her in their lap. No one other than Jess and Chris could pet Minnie at all. During our sessions together, in fact, Minnie spent all of her time hiding under a bed. I knew we would have a long way to go, but we began a treatment program for Minnie designed to teach her to enjoy petting further and to teach her to be crated for transport. 

I first instructed Jess and Chris to sit on the floor with Minnie during a calm time (well after I was gone and with no other visitors to cause stress) and to provide a nibble of tuna during or immediately after brief bits of petting, as long as Minnie remained calm and tolerant with no aggression. Minnie was allowed to come and go freely during these sessions but luckily, she often preferred to stay because she loved tuna and never got it outside of these petting sessions! After several weeks, Jess told me that Minnie was allowing petting on her sides and even some lifting from behind and also was moving freely onto Jess’s lap during these training sessions. Jess was overjoyed with the progress but I cautioned her to remember that we were still some time from being able to place Minnie into the crate for vet visits.

From there, we moved on to teaching tolerance of the crate. We began by leaving the crate open in an area of the living room where Minnie spent much of her time. We placed Minnie’s favorite toys and blanket in the crate. Some treats were also placed in the crate for Minnie to find any time she entered the crate. “Petting for tuna” sessions now took place with Jess or Chris seated next to the crate as well. Minnie was then casually led into the crate with food lures and received tuna nibbles for a series of steps that included one paw in crate, both paws in crate, all four paws in crate, etc. Once she reliably entered the crate for tuna, we began closing the crate door and popping tuna through the crate door. When we observed calm behavior in the crate, we began to also use the crate door opening as a reinforcer (reward) for calm behavior in the crate.

After several more months, Minnie was entering the crate freely, eating her meals in the crate, tolerating being picked up, placed onto Jess’s lap, and being led into the crate with the crate door shut behind her. At this point, Jess felt she could wait no longer for Minnie's next veterinary appointment. I worried that a trip to the vet without first desensitizing Minnie to the crate movement and car ride was risky and may result in some relapse in Minnie’s behavior. I also understood, of course, the need for Minnie to receive regular medical care so we readied Minnie for her first trip back to the doctor! I breathed a big sigh of relief when Jess reported that this trip went very well. Minnie was led into the crate by Jess, ate some tuna while in the car on the way to the vet, and tolerated the veterinary exam with skilled vet staff who used a force-free approach and handled Minnie with much less difficulty than before. In time, Minnie learned to travel in her crate as needed - and her owners even reported some purring coming from inside her crate at home!

Obsessive Tail Chasing

As we walked into the laundry room together during our first consultation session for his dog, Mike warned me, “There will be some blood, so don’t be alarmed.” We opened the door and there was Piper, his 4-year-old German Shepherd, wide-mouthed, wide-eyed and ready to greet us. She threw herself at us with licks and happy whimpers. As I said hello to Piper, I looked past her and saw what her worried owner had warned me about. Small specks and streaks of blood were splattered all along the walls at about the height of Piper’s back. Mike looked back and forth between Piper and me. “Do you see what she does to herself? It just breaks my heart!”

After letting Piper outside to potty, the three of us settled in the living room to talk further. Well, Mike and I settled at least. Piper seemed to have other intentions. She stared at us for a moment, and then began the behavioral routine that was the reason Mike had sought out my help. Piper looked to the right with alert eyes and then turned her head toward her back end. In an instant, she began spinning wildly to the right, biting at her tail and yipping excitedly. Within seconds, she had turned into a whirling dervish, a swirl of brown and black fur slowed only by occasional moments when she caught the tip of her tail in her front teeth, froze briefly, and then let it go again, moving back into a spinning and yipping blur before us.

Mike and I delved into Piper’s history and I learned that Mike had adopted Piper from a local animal shelter a year earlier. He had always had Shepherds and had a fondness for the breed. When he visited the shelter and saw Piper spinning and leaping at the walls of her kennel, he thought she looked a little wild but he was drawn to her nonetheless. He figured her behavior was due to being caged and that she would come around when he brought her home. Within days of her being in his home, however, Mike realized that the spinning and tail chasing were still happening. Her veterinary examination showed no medical problems or structural abnormalities and his veterinarian suggested the behavior was a possible remnant of her many months in the shelter. So Mike tried to ignore it at first, then tried to interrupt it by calling her to him whenever she started spinning. Then he tried scolding her and holding her muzzle firmly in his hand to interrupt and correct her when she did it. Nothing seemed to work. As the months went on, he noticed that although Piper often missed her tail as she chased it, she occasionally caught it in her mouth and bit onto it. These bites were enough to cause minor bleeding, leading to the unsightly blood splatter on the walls around her. He took Piper to a veterinary specialist who was again unable to identify any medical cause for this behavior and who referred Mike to me for a full behavioral assessment and treatment plan for Piper.

Treatment for Piper was not going to be easy. Obsessive tail chasing and biting, when no medical cause can be found, is often related to long periods of time kenneled or under-stimulated. Some dogs are left home alone or kenneled for too long without toys or chew bones and they develop tail chasing as a form of sensory stimulation or an escape from boredom. In shelters, dogs are often kenneled in a position where lots of dogs and people pass by each day. This can lead to obsessive tracking, jumping, or reactive behavior in the kennel which can be redirected onto the dog’s own tail. Once established, the behavior can be hard to change even in a new environment.

 In Piper’s case, we started with a daily schedule that provided as much enrichment and exercise as possible. Mike worked 40 hours a week so he arranged for a dog walker to run with Piper twice a day while he was at work. We noticed that Piper did not spin when on walks or on leash in the yard, so we arranged for Mike to begin training Piper out back each evening. He trained her to look at him when he called her name and to lay down in the grass for longer and longer Down/Stays. We used her dog food and favorite tug toy to reward short periods without spinning. We did this first while she was on leash and in the yard (where she rarely spun anyway), and then on leash inside the house or off leash in the yard as we gradually made things more challenging for her. We also changed her evening routines with Mike indoors so that they involved lots of leashed time with long-term chewable items and interactive toy play to keep her occupied.  

When she was home alone, we bandaged her tail carefully and applied some dabs of bitter-tasting apple spray to the outside of the bandage. We noticed that this curtailed her tail-biting and stopped her from damaging her tail even while she continued to spin. With the dramatically increased exercise and daily socialization with her dog walker, the revamped evening routines with her owner, and the prevention of access to her tail tip, Piper’s spinning was gradually reduced. After six months, Mike informed me that Piper’s tail had healed. Although she still occasionally spun when she got excited or when she heard a noise, these episodes were short and more easily interrupted by Mike than they ever had been. In our last conversation, I told Mike that Piper was lucky to have been adopted by such a devoted and patient owner. I could only smile when Mike responded, “No way! I’m the lucky one to have this complicated but wonderful dog in my life!”


Pilfering Pooches

A viral video surfaced in my social media this week that shows an adorable, fluffy Golden Retriever named Archie being gently chastised by his owner as he steals, teases, and then runs off with sundry household items including a telephone, remote control, shoe, wallet, and pen. Archie’s approach is playful and he hesitates just long enough for his person to reach for the item before he turns tail and disappears into another room. The video is amusing and many times this behavior is seen as a minor nuisance rather than a serious behavior problem. Nonetheless, I have heard many families over the years describe their frustration as they watch their impish canine running off yet again with their check book, their cell phone, or their dish towel.

In some cases, dogs steal items from around the house so that they can chew them. Chewing provides rewarding sensory feedback and is a normal part of a dog’s repertoire, and one of our jobs as a dog guardian is to teach her what is hers to chew and what is not. When a dog steals an item to run under the bed and destroy it, the motivation is often the act of chewing itself – what fun it is to shred paper products, soft leather, and various other things that smell like a dog’s favorite people!

Item stealing that looks like Archie’s, however, is a little different. When the dog steals an item and goes to find his owner, parading around with the item in his mouth only to flee joyously when the owner reaches for or chases after the dog, we are usually looking at social play as the motivating factor. This is especially true when the owner reports that the dog won’t even usually chew up the item if given the chance – he really just enjoys the chase! In cases like this, we must teach the dog that stealing items is socially quite boring, while “stealing” his own toys is a whole lot of fun!

If your dog is a thief of household items, you should first ensure that your house is safely “puppy proofed.” Puppy proofing is not just for puppies either – even if your dog is a full-fledged adult stealing your medicine bottles or valuable décor, these things must be put out of reach until better behavior patterns have been established. Once you have removed dangerous or valuable items from her reach, be sure that you have a toy basket full of fun bones and stuffed chew toys that is well within her reach and in a central location in the home. Each time you come home, when you come in from a walk, and when she comes in from pottying outside, seize the chance to encourage her happily to get a toy from her toy basket. Walk over there yourself and show lots of interest in her toys, grabbing or tossing a toy for chase or tug. Spend some time playing with her, showing her that her interest in her own toys leads you to be interested in her toys as well!

When she steals an item that’s not hers, as long as it’s not valuable or dangerous to her, try to act completely uninterested. Walk out of the room, turning your back on her and going on about your business. If she drops the item soon after, pick it up when she is no longer watching you or standing over the item. You may need to wander into another room or act as if you might walk into the yard in order to encourage her to drop the item without saying so. If the item is valuable or dangerous, approach her with a treat in hand and bring the treat to her nose as you say “Drop It”, then give her the treat as you take the item away. Secure the item out of her reach.

If you only focus on getting back those items that are “contraband” (your possessions), your dog learns this is a reliable way to get your attention. Thus, you must be certain to start chase games whenever you see her saunter by with her own toy or bone. Act excited and pretend you want that toy too – playfully give chase and start a game of tug or fetch. Spend just 5 minutes playing with your dog when you see her with her own toy, and over time you will reverse your pooch’s playful pilfering!