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!





Hands off my Paws! Teaching Dogs to Enjoy Nail Clipping

Some dog owners prefer to have their veterinarian or groomer clip their dog’s nails, either because they are uninterested, uncertain of their technique, or afraid they might cut the nail too short or hurt their dog. Others prefer to clip their dog’s nails at home but face an uphill battle in getting their dog to tolerate it. If you are in this latter group, help has arrived! I will work through today how to teach a dog to calmly tolerate and even enjoy nail clipping using positive reinforcement.

Many dogs find nail clipping less than enjoyable on its own. When done correctly, there is no pain to nail clipping, as there is none when we clip our own fingernails. When the nail is cut too short, some bleeding and pain can result but even when a dog’s nails have never been cut to the quick, he or she may find the whole routine tedious at best and downright frightening at worst. Paws are a sensitive body part for dogs, and many respond to paw touch or paw handling with an instinctive pulling away. If an owner or handler just grabs that paw and then clips a nail, the dog may become increasingly frightened, resistant, or even aggressive when having her paws reached for over time. Some dogs “grin and bear it” for a lifetime, but others become defensive. By the time they are in my office for behavioral intervention, they are snarling, snapping, and biting when their paws are touched or even approached with those nail clippers!

If we know that nail clipping is inherently a little off-putting for most dogs, then our best strategy is to work to make it less so. In fact, we should be teaching dogs that nail clipping, while it still involves paw holding and mild nail pressure, is in fact kind of fun! This can be accomplished in stages by using patience, positive reinforcement, and practice.

To start, sit down with a bowl full of your dog’s favorite treats cut into tiny pieces. Have the nail clippers sitting by your side on the floor. If your dog already knows what nail clippers mean, and she won’t even approach when they are in sight, then you’ll have to move them further away from you to start. When she approaches, praise and provide a treat. If she tries to nose her way into the bowl, block it casually with your hands until she quits trying to steal treats. When she sits or stands back and quits nosing in the bowl, praise and treat. Run your hand down her leg and when it reaches her paw, praise and treat. If she seems comfortable with this (no retreating, mouthing, aggression, or sharply pulling her paw away), then repeat. Try different paws and always praise and treat with one hand as your other hand passes over her paw. Then try lifting that paw briefly as you praise and treat. Let this process take place over several sessions, maybe 5 minutes at a time a few times a day when you know she is hungry and most excited about those treats.

When she will let you lift her paw in your hand, try moving the nail clippers so that they are laying clearly in view near her. Repeat paw lifting and praise and treat each time you lift a paw. When she seems comfortable with this over several repetitions, hold that paw for an extra moment before you praise and treat. Your job now is to teach her to let her paw rest in your hand for a few seconds. Start with very short holds and gradually hold that paw a moment longer each time before you praise and treat. If she pulls her paw from your hand, don’t praise or treat Just wait a few seconds and try again.

When she will allow you to hold each paw for a few seconds, try bringing the nail clippers to her paw with one hand. Don’t clip yet, just bring the nail clippers near to her paw, then praise and treat from your treat bowl. Repeat. From there, these steps involve holding a nail in front of the nail clippers and finally pressing down with the nail clippers to clip the nail. (If you are unsure of how to clip the nail itself, speak with your veterinarian for instruction before you reach this stage.)

What’s important throughout this process is that your dog understands she is free to walk away at any time and yet she doesn’t want to walk away because she knows there’s something in her behavior that is producing those treats! We teach her that “sticking around” is rewarded, and we gradually increase the paw manipulation and ultimately nail clipping without her realizing there’s any reason to feel anxious in the first place. Of course, when the anxiety and fear of the process go away, so does any defensive aggression. In its place, we have a dog who comes running when she hears those nail clippers come out of the drawer, ready to place her pretty paw right into your hand!

Training our Scaled, Finned, and Feathered Friends

I typically focus on the behavior and training of cats and dogs. Cats and dogs are popular, common pets and more likely to display behavior problems or training deficits in need of professional attention. However, our littler pets of various species also learn and can be trained using many of the same principles one might use with a dog or cat. Let’s consider some things we might teach our scaled, finned, or feathered friends and how we would go about training them. I will use for example those critters who live in my own home.

In addition to our three dogs, my family has a Siamese fighting fish, an electric blue crayfish, three platies, a yellow-collar miniature macaw, and a bearded dragon. Each of these critters is able to learn and respond to positive reinforcement. For the fish and the crayfish, food is the reinforcer we use. Our crayfish prefers to spend much of his time in his underwater cave but we like to watch him move about the tank, so my children and I have taught him that in order to earn his pelleted food, he must come out of his cave. About twice a day, Blueclaw thus comes marching out, claws extended, waiting to be rewarded for showing himself. We’ve taken it a step further with our Siamese fighting fish, Zoomer, and have taught him to jump out of the water to nibble food from our fingertips. We started by dropping his food into the top of his tank from our fingertips, then used a moistened finger tip to hold the food to it until Zoomer came to the top of the water, and eventually until he jumped clear out of the water to reach the food. Now our Zoomer is also a colorful and enthusiastic jumper and his nibbling kisses to our fingertips are a delight to my young children.

As we move along to more complicated critters, such as our bearded dragon and our parrot, both the rewards that can be used in training and the responses that can be taught become more complicated as well. Our parrot, Sappho, has learned to say “Hello!” as a request for social interaction and “Step up!” as a request to get out of the water after her bath or when she wants to be picked up in general. She has learned to play chase and catch with balled up pieces of paper or small toys. In fact, she sits here now at my desk as I type, chatting and trying to entice me into another round of play. Of course, parrot owners more creative than me have taught their feathered friends a variety of vastly more complex and clever responses, and parrots are in fact considered some of the most intelligent creatures of the animal kingdom.

We are teaching our young bearded dragon, Metalmouth, to tolerate and even enjoy handling and being carried around on a shoulder or chest. At this stage, we are working first on teaching Metalmouth that human touch is associated with food, so we feed him his mealworms, kale, and cilantro treats by hand and pet and talk to him as he eats.

In each of these cases, we utilize four strategies that I often recommend to cat and dog owners as well. First, we rely on consistency – for example, presenting the same hand cues repeatedly so that the animal comes to learn that certain movements by us predict certain options for him. Second, we rely on positive reinforcement in the form of food, play time, or snuggling provided when certain desirable responses occur. Third, to teach more complex responses, we utilize shaping, which involves beginning with easy and simple responses and rewarding those repeatedly before gradually moving toward more complicated or challenging responses. Fourth, we use systematic desensitization, which allows animals to get used to human handling and interaction in small stages while their fearful behavior is gradually replaced with more confident and relaxed behavior around us.

Whether it’s a hamster, an iguana, a ferret or a fish, pets in various shapes and levels of complexity can learn all sorts of fun tricks and useful responses. They can be taught to look forward to their interactions with their human handlers as a highlight of their day. In many cases, the responses one can teach their small pet are limited not by the pet’s intelligence or ability to learn but instead only by our own creativity and perseverance.   


My Dog Dug up the Daisies and my Cat Chewed all the Calla Lilies! A Pet Owner's Gardening Woes

How refreshing it is to feel the warm breeze and see the pops of color appearing around town as we (finally!) move into spring. For those of us who like to fancy ourselves green-thumbed, one of the brightest aspects of spring is the chance to get back into the garden. For those of us who also are pet owners, however, we are quickly reminded of the twists pets can lead us down in our path toward the perfect garden! Today I will review some common ways in which pets cause trouble for the garden and how we can best address them.

We’ve all seen the classic image of the naughty dog in the garden, with his rear end in the air and his head burrowed into a hole of dirt, with soil flying all around him. Of course, digging is a natural behavior for dogs as a whole, and some breeds or individual dogs are especially driven to perform this natural response. Like their wolfish ancestors, some dogs dig in order to find a cool or more comfortable place to rest. Like their fox kin, some dogs dig in their hunt for a critter they’ve smelled or heard moving beneath the earth. Many dogs dig because a buried bone, tree root or rock just beneath the surface has caught their attention. Other dogs seem to dig for the sheer joy of the act.

Understandable as it may be from the dog’s perspective, when digging wreaks havoc in the lawn or garden, many owners find the behavior problematic. It is also exceedingly difficult to correct because most dogs learn not to dig in front of their owners, but will instead dig when left alone in the yard. Dogs cannot be punished for behavior that happened in the past, so owners must find ways to prevent digging when the dog is unsupervised and to interrupt all digging that occurs while they are there to see it. As with so many behaviors, digging is easier to stop when it’s curbed early on; lifelong diggers can be more persistent in their habits. Keep your dog engaged in other activities while you are outside with her – throw the ball or Frisbee, set up scent work games, or invite a friend’s dog over to play. If your dog starts digging, interrupt with a short “Ah Ah” or “No” and then call the dog over for another activity to replace digging. If you can’t play with the dog, give her an activity feeder or soup bone so that she can work on removing the food or chewing on the item over a long period of time, holding her attention in a way that can compete with the excitement of digging. If your dog only digs when you are not outside with him, block off the area he prefers to dig in. Some owners have found that providing one area where digging is encouraged (a wooded or non-lawn area of the property or even a sandbox) can help for those dogs whose interest in digging is stronger than most other forms of play or enrichment.

Cats also dig in the garden, although their digging is more likely to be associated primarily with urinating or defecating. This toileting issue is not only unappealing to us, but also can be dangerous to our health if a cat is relieving herself in the vegetable garden, for example. If a cat is toileting in your garden, you can put down various substrates that might make the surface less comfortable for walking. For example, some gardeners have had success putting short stakes or toothpicks around the garden in areas used as a latrine. Cats will avoid areas that are less convenient or comfortable for them to maneuver around in. You also might consider bringing your cat indoors, as there are many advantages to having an indoor-only cat in addition to a cleaner garden (e.g., the cat’s long-term safety is enhanced along with the well-being of wild birds and animals who might otherwise turn into a pet cat’s play toy or meal.)

In addition to playing in and toileting on our gardens, our pets might have the habit of dining there as well! Of course, if your dog or cat has eaten anything from the garden – flower or vegetable, annual or perennial – your very first job is to research the plant eaten to ensure it’s not toxic. There are all sorts of potentially toxic plants in the garden from azaleas to tulips, so contact your veterinarian or a pet poison control center if you worry the plant consumed could be toxic. After determining your pet is safe, you will need to find ways to prevent your pet’s access to a garden with items he or she is determined to eat. When plants are perceived as edible by our pets, the risk of ingestion will remain if they are allowed unsupervised access to those plants. A fence can be helpful. When this is not possible, some gardeners have found use in a motion-activated sprinkler system. Especially for cats, but for some dogs as well, being suddenly rained upon when in the garden is enough to keep them out altogether!

If your dog or cat is less of a gardening assistant and more of a garden assassin, then you may find that physically separating the pet and the garden when you cannot intervene directly are the safest and most reliable means to have your garden and eat it too!

Basic Obedience and Beyond, Part 2

Last month, I talked about dogs who excelled in obedience class but wound up developing behavior problems later. There are plenty of families whose dogs were attentive, happy, and motivated in puppy kindergarten and beginner obedience class, but if training is not generalized to the home and community or if the dog experiences inconsistent, frightening or aversive events in its home life, then often obedience skills are lost or problematic behavior replaces good behavior over time.      

Some families, on the other hand, aren’t even able to complete puppy kindergarten or beginner obedience because their dogs already show signs of excessive barking, fearful behavior, aggression, or hypervigilance and lack of attention in class. These families often reach out to in-home dog trainers or animal behaviorists for private instruction that can be tailored to their dog’s needs and behavior.

Several factors determine how a dog will respond to a group obedience environment. Of course, the dog’s genetic tendencies will play an important role in determining his or her behavior. At birth, dogs  vary in their likelihood to explore new situations, respond fearfully to stimuli, display defensive or aggressive behavior toward people or dogs, and many other behavioral characteristics. It is ideal if owners can meet the dog’s parents and littermates before selecting a dog so as to determine what behavioral characteristics are “in the family.” This is often not an option, however. Whether because the puppy’s littermates or parents were not onsite or because the dog was adopted from a shelter, we often have pitiably little information about a dog’s family history or inherited traits.

Thus, we must work with the environment we have for the dog to mold and structure his or her behavior as best as possible. Group obedience classes can be an important part of doing this, as was discussed last month. What happens, however, if you find yourself with the dog who is the wildest one in the bunch, barking, lunging, hiding, growling, or creating a stressful environment for you and the people and dogs around him? In this case, you and your dog would likely benefit from individualized instruction instead. You might start with private lessons with a qualified dog trainer who can teach you how to teach your dog some of the basics – Sit, Stay, Come, Drop It, and walking on leash are common introductory skills. You should work with a trainer who makes you feel comfortable and who uses positive reinforcement in the form of praise, treats, and play for your dog and praise and encouragement for you too! You may find that this option is available in your own home or in a training facility at quiet times or away from other dog-owner pairs. Either option has advantages. If you are working in the home, you can tailor your exercises to the dog’s primary environment, and if you train at a training facility, you can allow for ongoing practice in a calmer but still public environment.

How do you know if your puppy or adult dog would benefit from a group class versus private instruction? If your dog barks a lot at other dogs or people in public situations, even when you are providing opportunities for toy play and treat deliveries, he may be a challenge in a group setting. If your dog is not interested in taking treats in public situations, even when you know she is hungry and you are using extra-yummy edibles, then she might be better able to learn in a private setting. And certainly, if your dog is already showing signs of fear or aggression in public situations, then some private instruction with a board-certified animal behaviorist, veterinary behaviorist, or qualified dog trainer is recommended before moving to the group class setting. Even when group settings are just the thing your dog ultimately needs to become adjusted to, he will likely proceed more successfully when he can be provided with an individually tailored behavior plan that works him toward group settings in smaller steps, rather than trying to muddle through the group class right from the outset. A group class could be overstimulating for him, and the instructor will be unable to provide as much individual feedback while instructing multiple dog-owner pairs.

It is important to reiterate again that board-certified animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists, along with a majority of dog trainers, will not recommend the use of painful or aversive stimuli in the form of electronic, prong, or chain collars, harsh reprimands, muzzle grabs, or pinning the dog down during basic obedience training. Such strategies are stressful for the dog and often for the owner as well, and many risk creating aggression or fearful behavior as side effects. Animal behaviorists recommend instead the use of positive reinforcement in the form of praise, treats, toy play, and natural rewards for good behavior in and outside of training classes.

Basic Obedience and Beyond

For many dog owners, puppy kindergarten or basic obedience classes are an important part of their first year or more with their dog. When these owners find themselves in need of an animal behaviorist later, they often feel perplexed or especially disappointed, having imagined that the basic obedience classes were a way to prevent the development of behavior problems. These owners sometimes even describe to me how their dog was the “star” of the class. They wonder how it is that their puppy class valedictorian could now be acting like such a doggie delinquent!

Basic obedience classes have many strong benefits for dogs and their owners. In fact, when there are options for classes using positive reinforcement (praise, play, and treats as rewards for good behavior) and with knowledgeable and capable instructors in the area, animal behaviorists often recommend that owners utilize this resource fully. A good dog trainer teaches his or her students in the class how to effectively use cues with their dogs to bring about important responses such as Sit, Stay, Come, and Drop It, for example. A good dog trainer will employ positive reinforcement for owners’ behavior as well as their dogs’, keeping both members of each pair actively engaged and having fun while learning how to communicate with each other in positive ways. Owners learn how to talk to their dogs, and how to reward the right responses. Dogs learn how to listen to their owners, while practicing these important skills in the presence of other dogs and people in an environment outside of the home. Each of these aspects of group obedience classes is important and beneficial.

As any good dog trainer will also tell you, however, your dog’s long-term behavior and responding will be determined by variables outside of the 6- or 8-week obedience course. You must practice your skill acquisition in the home, in the community, in the car, at friends’ houses, etc. If you hope for your dog to be well-behaved with visitors, you must practice when you have visitors. If you hope she will behave at the pet store, you must practice at the pet store. This aspect of training, called generalization across context, is one area where owners sometimes fall short. Because the dog did so well in class, or does so well when in the kitchen at home, we might mistakenly presume that he “just knows” what to do and we might just expect him to do so all over the place. This doesn’t happen automatically in most cases.

A good dog trainer will also be sure to describe to you how to use intermittent reward schedules as needed. That is, he or she must teach you when you will need to rely on meaty treats and when you might get away with a “Good girl” or an ear scratch reward instead. These determinations are made based on your dog’s current performance and competing rewards in the environment. For example, you might not treat any more when your dog sits when asked while you are watching TV. In this case, a warm cuddle would likely do the trick. However, if you’d like your dog to Sit while on a busy walk, you might need to utilize that bit of hot dog or string cheese if you hope to compete with the joy your dog might experience by pulling toward that gaggle of school children running by her. All of our dogs are faced with competing rewards in life, and our job as leaders, trainers, and owners is to work to ensure that we can control and deliver highly positive consequences for those dog behaviors we most want to see. 

It is in these two areas described above that I most frequently hear complaints from owners whose dogs excelled in obedience class but continued to be challenging outside of or after class ended. In most cases, if these owners had been able to train more consistently in all environments or for a longer period of time after graduation, or if these owners had been able to effectively reduce reliance on food reinforcement while continuing to reward the dog’s behavior in other ways, some behavior problems may have been avoided. Of course, if the obedience class instructor was misguided, utilized outdated training techniques, or was ineffective in his or her teaching, this too likely would have contributed to a dog’s poor long-term performance.

If you are considering group or private obedience lessons for your dog, you should find out as much as you can about the instructor’s background and credentials. You might prefer someone who is affiliated with a national training organization, such as the Association for Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). You will want to ask whether punishment in the form of electronic collars, chain collars, or prong collars is recommended in the class. Most animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists do not recommend these tools in any basic obedience training. You should ask how many owner-dog dyads are allowed in the class, with the understanding that smaller classes allow for more individualized attention and instruction, but that larger classes present more challenging distractions and various dog personalities, which may be better for more advanced learners. You might ask whether socialization between dogs is allowed or encouraged, if one of your goals is to allow your dog to free play with other dogs at some point. Finally, be sure that you get a good feeling from talking with the instructor – you should get the sense that you will be able to ask questions and share concerns freely as you move through the training process.

Finally, there are many dogs who come to me, not as past obedience class superstars but as doggie dropouts. There are those dogs who have been asked to leave obedience class because of their unruly, loud, or aggressive behavior or those owners who felt compelled to quit because the experience was aversive or stressful for them. We will talk more about these families in next month’s post.