Fear Aggression in Dogs

Posted by & filed under Articles, Dr. Nick, Pet Care Advice.

by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

One of the most common behavior problems I see is called fear aggression. In a nutshell, it is aggression directed at unfamiliar people or most other dogs. It stems from lack of socialization and/or adverse experiences and — to the dog — it makes perfect sense. If a dog feels threatened by a person or other dog, it makes sense to either: a) run away or b) do everything possible to cause them (and the whole situation) to go away. The fearful personality may be partly inherited but the greatest cause of fearfulness in dogs is impaired nurture during a formative period of a pups’ life or some particularly heinous experience. The sensitive period of learning in pups, including the socialization period, is generally cited as the first 3 months of a life, though a secondary period of fairly rapid learning seems to occur from 3 to 6 months of age — i.e. up until the end of the juvenile period. After that, a dog is what he is personality-wise – confident or anxious/fearful. Some dogs never develop sufficient confidence to become fear aggressive and simply shrink away when faced with perceived threats. These are the shrinking violets of canine-kind. Others develop a proactive approach for dealing with supposed enemies and start showing aggression to strangers in the 6 – 9 month window as a results of increasing maturity and confidence. So fear aggression seems to be a composite condition involving a combination of mistrust and/or fearfulness plus a certain willingness to do something about it.

Learning is also involved in the equation, as fearful dogs realize that their growls and other threats achieve the desired effect — so fear aggression unfolds like a poisonous flower from its first, early appearance to maximum intensity at the time of adult maturity, that is, 2 to 3 years of age. The most common human targets of this aggression are men – particularly uniformed visitors but also tall men, men with beards, men wearing hats, and anyone with an unusual appearance (persons with a limp, walker frame, and so on) — and children. The reason for this preferential mistrust is, I believe, that men tend to be more aggressive in their dealings with dogs and children often do silly and upsetting things that scare young dogs and make them wary around them.

Fearfulness and mistrust leading to fear aggression can never be totally eliminated because it is ingrained from early days, but the problem, if managed correctly, can reduced to livable proportions. It’s possible to desensitize a fearful dog to a particular person or persons but it’s impossible to desensitize a dog to everyone.

Fear aggression can present as a noisy and scary warning with the affected dog never actually biting or can be result in injury to people in more committed dogs lacking bite inhibition. Fear aggression is a common reason for dogs’ surrender to shelters and having that history is bad news in terms of future placement. It’s best not to allow the condition to develop into the full blown syndrome in the first place. If a dog shows any signs of fear aggression early, here are some things that can be done to improve the situation, sometimes with great success.

  1. Exercise – the great mood stabilizer. Fear aggressive dogs benefit from the maximum amount of off-leash aerobic (cardiovascular) exercise that owners can manage and the dog can handle. This might sound like a Catch-22 situation because off leash the dog may attack someone – or another dog. The fact is that many fear aggressive dogs are at the worse on leash (trainers sometimes call it “leash aggression”) and can be virtually non-aggressive off leash and away from their own territory. Certainly that is not always the case so great care must be taken. Dogs who are aggressive off-leash can be exercised in enclosed areas – like a large backyard – where the public is not around. Most healthy dogs need to run around for at least an hour a day, possibly two. The work-out they get will release mood-stabilizing neurochemicals and make them calmer and less aggressive. A tired dog is a happier dog – and often a much less aggressive one.

  2. Diet – Particularly for dogs whose fear aggression has a territorial component (worse at home or in the yard), a maintenance level of protein in the diet – around 18 – 20% protein “as fed” for dry food — as opposed to a higher protein content [26-30 percent or higher] –can help reduce aggression. Halo’s Vegan Garden Medley provides an example of a diet that fits the bill. See http://shop.halopets.com/Dry-Dog/Halo-Dry-Dog-Vegan-Garden-Medley-4Lb

  3. Clear Communication – Have everyone in the family use the same one or two-syllable commands – and ensuring that commands are said only once before stepping in to make the desired response reality. Useful commands are “Leave-it,” “Sit,” “Quiet,” “Come,” and “Wait.” The sequence should be as follows:

    (1) Give the command (once)
    (2) Make it happen
    (3) The desired response is achieved
    (4) Reward, in the form of petting, praise, or a food treat is then given immediately.

    The challenge for most people is item #2. How do you benignly make sure it happens? The answer is in the next section.

  4. Head Halter for Control. A head halter applies pressure around the muzzle (“maternal point” – gently holding a pup’s muzzle is their dog mom tells them to quit something they are doing) and high up on the neck (“leader point” – think of how a mom dog carries her pups). The result of applying gentle upward pressure on the leash attached to the head halter is to cause the dog to stop what it doing and relax. A head halter (with leash attached) can be used to shape a behavior you desire from your fearful dog when visitors arrive at your home or when you meet people or other dogs on the street. Here’s an example: Dog barks at stranger; owner says "Quiet” but the dog continues to bark. Sustained but gentle upward tension is applied to the leash until the dog become quiet. It is immediately praised and rewarded.

  5. Respect the dog’s needs. Fear aggressive dogs are, by definition, frightened of strangers or unfamiliar dogs. So owners should protect them from unwanted advances of well-meaning people or other dogs. Strangers should be told to totally ignore the dog; no looking at, no talking to, no touching, no reaching out an outstretched hand (“to be sniffed”). Owners of fear aggressive dogs should instruct owners of other dogs who are the target of their dog’s fearfulness and aggression to put their dog on leash and move away to a non-threatening distance. Also, feared people or other dogs should be discouraged/prevented from direct approach – rather they walk (or be walked) around the fearful dog in a circuitous path to avoid unnecessary confrontations.

  6. Counterconditioning. If thing are going well, strangers who are ignoring a fearful dog can sweeten the pot by tossing food treats toward the dog nonchalantly for the dog to gobble up. They don’t even have to look at the dog while doing this – and it’s best if they don’t. A dog that eats in front of someone is losing its fear and entering a different mode – an appetitive one. For non-food driven dogs, toys or tennis balls can be used in the same way.

  7. Medication. For refractory cases of fear aggression, non-sedating mood-stabilizing medications can play a role in recovery. I often refer to (what I call) “pharmacological desensitization.” Basically, if the dog can be made to feel more comfortable and less threatened in front of well-meaning people (who have food treats!) or properly controlled dogs by use of medication, they can learn that strangers are not as bad as he thought they were. The learning may then “stick” and as the medication is tapered off.

Putting 1 through 7 into practice simultaneously (or even 1 – 6) can produce huge improvements in fear aggressive behavior and save unfortunate accidents and dogs lives. It is a useful truism to remember that insecure dogs need strong leaders. Not mean ones, rather ones who say what they mean, mean what they say, and ensure that their instructions always result in their dog conforming to their wishes. To make that happen, I reiterate that a head halter, preferably a Gentle Leader head halter, is an excellent tool for controlling and retraining such fearful dogs.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

Separation Anxiety – the home alone syndrome

Posted by & filed under Articles, Dr. Nick, Pet Care Advice.

by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

Some of the sweetest dogs in the world have separation anxiety. These dogs are a joy to be with and love their owners unconditionally. We sometimes call them Velco dogs because they are so attached to their owners – practically joined at the hip. The problem comes when their owner leaves to go somewhere. When alone – and only when left alone – these dogs get stressed to the point of sheer panic and act out in certain ways that owners find difficult to accept. Doors can get damaged, micro-blinds torn down, furniture trashed, and there’s often distress barking that can drive close neighbors crazy. Some of these dogs get so scared they have accidents on the floor – so owners come home to find an unpleasant surprise waiting for them. As bad as this situation is for the owner, it’s probably worse for the dog – and in their heart of hearts, most owners recognize this adding their guilt and remorse into the equation.

Separation anxiety is an extremely common condition. The overt, diagnosable condition affects some 15-17 percent of the Nation’s 70-80 million dogs but many more dog are silently miserable or stressed when left. An English study showed that 80% of dogs left home alone have increased stress hormones – some of them suffering in silence rather than acting out their angst and frustration. One key sign of these more stoic sufferers stress is that they will not eat until their owners comes home – showing so called psychogenic anorexia. Greetings in either case are usually over the top as they greet their owners as if they never expected to see them again. Something can be done to help these poor dogs cope and below I will describe the steps we take to make their time alone more tolerable. First let me list the signs of separation anxiety so that owners can recognize and appreciate them for what they represent.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

  • Following the owner from place to place
  • Pre-departure anxiety
  • Vocalization* (barking, howling, or whining) (in about 70 %)
  • Destructive behavior when left alone* (in about 60%)
  • Pacing and panting
  • Houdini syndrome (will escape from anything or injure themselves trying)
  • House soiling when alone* (in about 30%)
  • Salivation (severe cases)
  • Psychogenic anorexia
  • Exuberant greeting

Having at least three of these signs – including one or two of the cardinal signs (asterisked) is grounds for a diagnosis of separation anxiety.

What to do about it

  1. Make leaving a happy occasion – act upbeat and provide the morning or evening meal at this time. Lay out all kinds of fun, food-filled toys and various other treats – Kongs laced with peanut butter, spray cheese, liver paste, and then frozen make good long-lasting food. Treat hidden around the place encourage the dog to track them down by sense of smell and then enjoy a tasty reward at the end. Also provide chew toys enhanced with attractive odors, such as vanilla, anise, or hunting lure odors (e.g. deer scent, grouse, pheasant, or even fox urine). You only need add a minute trace of the odor attractant because dog have such a good sense of smell. If you can smell it, you have probably added too much! Remember, not all dogs respond to all odors so pick ones that are attractive to the dog in question.

  2. Make the home alone environment as enriched and user friendly as possible – the food, food treats, and odor-enhanced toys will already be around. Between them they will appeal to dogs’ sense of taste, smell and touch. That leaves their sense of vision and hearing unaddressed. To appeal to the latter, leave them in a room with a view. An accessible window or glass slider fill the bill. Make outside as busy as possible by providing a bird feeder outside the window. Where there’s a bird feeder there will be squirrels. Alternatively or as well, leave on the TV tuned to a suitable channel – or employ DogTV (see DogTV.Com). For sound, either leave the radio on a classical station or arrange to have a CD of bioaccoustic music playing. Through a Dog’s Ear is an example of an appropriate CD that provides soothing sounds. Note: DogTV already has bioaccoustic music as part of the package. Now all 5 of the dog’s senses will be appealed to during your absence.

  3. When you return – greet the dog calmly (“Hello boy, how’s it going”) and then immediately pick up all the goodies you left down. There’s no snacking once you’re home. Even the meal you put down should be picked up – though the dog can be fed its next meal (half its daily rations) an hour or so after your return when all is calm. Note: If the dog insists on not eating when you are away, he will be on half rations – which causes him to become progressively hungrier the more days he refuses to eat. When hunger overcomes fear you’re half way home.

  4. Independence training – basically teaching a dog to stand on his own four feet! The only time you can train a dog is when you’re with him. Start with a few 5-minute sessions in which your dog is required to be separated from you – perhaps in the same room at first. Provide him a comfy bed to lie on a give him a milk bone – or some such so he knows he’s not in trouble and say “You have to stay” – giving a stop sign (open hand). If he insists on getting up and coming to you, use a tether or kiddy gate to make your instruction work. Gradually increase time and distance apart as you meet with success at each stage. Also, require him to sleep in a dog bed in your bedroom – as opposed to in your bed – and move the dog bed away from the side of the bed incrementally until he’s some distance from you. You will be teaching him that he can tolerate life without being right next to you.

As well as independence training, you will be reorganizing his life so that not all good things happen to him when you are with him. When you are with him he has you and your attention – but when you’re not there he has all this fun stuff to do. I think the analogy of one of those games at the airport where you operate a grab arm to seize a toy in a glass case and try to deliver it to a chute so you can get it is a good one. Many of the things you are providing him in your absence are things he might have gotten when you are at home – like his morning meal, for example. Now with the new plan, that good thing will only be available when you are not. That evens out the day so he has you when he has you – and lots of other fun stuff when you are unavailable. Think about it as evening out the roller coaster ride of his emotions. Your leaving will no longer represent nothing to do and the sound of silence or a ticking clock. Also, your return will not be associated with hysterical joy and a hearty meal but a matter of fact address and the end of the food fest. One last things, separation anxiety can still be a tough condition to deal with – especially if severe. In these cases mood stabilizing mediation ca get you to where you want him to be quicker and reduce his level of stress during the retraining program – and that’s nothing to sniff at – for you at least!

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

An Introduction to Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Posted by & filed under Articles, Dr. Nick, Pet Care Advice.

by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

I am absolutely delighted to have been asked to write an occasional blog for Halo, Purely for Pets. I personally know the company’s CEO, Steve Marton, as a successful businessman; a knowledgeable, ethical individual; philanthropist, member of my veterinary school’s advisory board; and also as my friend and advisor. I am happy to step up and contribute to Halo’s good cause to deliver quality, whole-food diets to the nation’s pets and provide bone fide helpful information to pet owners everywhere. Recently, Halo has become the first sponsor of a separate venture I am involved with as chief scientific advisor- The Center for Canine Behavior Studies (CCBS). CCBS plans an inaugural study to learn more about the effect of owner personality on the behavior of dogs. Working together, CCBS and Halo will produce and disseminate the results of the inaugural study to improve the lot of dogs everywhere and help ensure that all dogs have a good home for life.

It occurs to me, as a new Halo blogger, that you may not know much about me or why I have been asked to contribute, so I thought, first of all, that I had better introduce myself. I am, first and foremost, a veterinarian and have been one for almost as long as I remember.

I graduated from Glasgow University Veterinary School in 1970, not quite clear what path my veterinary life would take at that stage. To give myself time to think and also experience one aspect of veterinary medicine I chose to join the Surgery Department of my veterinary school as a “house surgeon” (like an intern) for the first year after graduation. During that year I spent my entire time either operating on dogs and cats or anesthetizing them and, I must say, that I enjoyed the experience.

After that, I awarded myself a little break, in the form of world travel, but again focused on my veterinary interests as I traveled to San Francisco Bay Area to help out in a busy small animal practice. My experiences on the West Coast were transformative and I fell in love with the big US of A. My visa expired after six months and I returned to Southern England where I joined a small animal practice and performed James Herriot-style work running around in a Land Rover treating all creatures great and small.

After a few months of this rural life I saw an advertisement in a veterinary journal for a lectureship in veterinary surgery at my alma mater, Glasgow Veterinary School. Not thinking I had much chance at getting the position because I was so young, I went ahead and applied anyway, not exactly holding my breath. I was amazed a few weeks later to be asked for an interview and, you guessed it, I got the job.

On my first day on the job, I was approached by two professors, one the Acting Dean of the School, and the other the professor in charge of my department. The first professor, Sir Williams Weipers, said, “Nick, the age of specialization is not yet upon us so I am hoping that you will engage in all aspects of this department’s works including performing surgery and helping with anesthesia.” Within minutes, the second professor arrived, Donald Lawson, and he announced that the age of specialization had arrived and that I should focus all my efforts on becoming a superlative veterinary anesthesiologist.

I have to say that I was not thrilled with the last edict from the person who really mattered, my immediate supervisor, as my first love at the time was performing surgery. I plodded on for several years in the department, achieving a specialty qualification in anesthesiology in 1975 and, eventually, using my anesthesia credentials as my ticket to ride to get me back to the place I so missed, the United States. I applied to the University of California’s Veterinary School in Davis but was not offered a position. I then applied to the University of Florida, the other Sunshine State, and they really didn’t want to bother with the paperwork of immigration. So there was no go there either. Eventually, I got a call from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, from a former professor mine, Dr. Bob Cook, who invited me to Boston for an interview. Needless to say, I came like a shot and, after several days of interviews, was eventually offered the job.

I was cock-a-hoop about the new appointment, was thrilled to be back in the United States and delighted with my home, new salary, and enhanced purchasing power. Everything was a dream except for one thing; I did not really feel that I wanted to spend the rest of my life as an anesthesiologist. After all, all my patients were asleep most of the time. Then I had a stroke of luck, a professor from the Tufts Medical School, Dr. Lou Shuster, invited me to join him in a study to look at the effects of morphine in horses – an appropriate research topic for a veterinary anesthesiologist.

During the course of the experiment I made the observation that morphine induced behaviors that occur spontaneously in client-owned horses and that equestrians are familiar with as stall vices. We observed pacing, stall walking, cribbing, and digging to name but a few of the repetitive disorders induced by morphine. The obvious question was are the behaviors seen in clients horses fueled by nature’s own morphine-like chemicals, the endorphins?

To test the hypothesis we blocked endorphins in horses with naturally occurring stall vices and, low and behold, the behaviors were stopped in their tracks. The first time we observed this effect was – to say the least – a Eureka moment. The horse owner who was there decided on the strength of what she witnessed to leave her job as a highly-paid executive at a company in Boston and to go back to Loyola University in Chicago to do a PhD in Bio-Chemistry. Dr. Shuster, who was world renowned for his work with drugs of addiction changed his focus to looking at behaviors of addiction and has continued to work with me on that topic over the years. I was changed, too. I now knew what I wanted to do with my veterinary career – I wanted to become a behaviorist, I wanted to study behavior, to understand it, learn how to control it, and solve people’s problems when they have pets with behavior problems.

I slowly managed to morph my anesthesia job to include some elements of clinical behavior and gradually turned my whole position around completely so that by 1990 I was working purely as a veterinary behaviorist. Somewhere in the middle of the 1990’s I passed the specialty board examination in veterinary behavior and have continued on my path as a veterinary behaviorist through the present time. As I sit here writing this retrospective, I realize that it has now been forty-four years since I graduated from Glasgow University Veterinary School in those days of uncertainty and it has been over thirty years since I found my true calling in veterinary medicine. I have an interest in the behavior of all species though I focus particularly on dogs, cats, and horses. I have been particularly interested in what are called compulsive disorders, like the equine stall vices I mentioned earlier, with many other side interests and my bread-and-butter work of dealing with cases of aggression and various fears and phobias, including separation anxiety and noise phobia.

What has occurred to me over the years is that there is only one medicine that embraces all animal species including man. The conditions I have seen over the years have led me to discover and study conditions like Tourette’s syndrome in horses, autism in dogs, post-traumatic stress disorders in dogs and to recognize the expression of various really strange bout-like behaviors caused by complex partial seizures. Certainly, the world of animal behavior has been, for me, like an Aladdin’s cave discovery.

I have written several books along the way that have taken me to places I never thought I would go and have caused me to meet people I never thought I would meet. From Oprah Winfrey to Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson I seem to have met them all. One of my most impressive meetings was with my former prime minister, the Right Honorable Lady Margaret Thatcher. She was introduced to me by the university president who said, “Lady Thatcher, this is Dr. Nicholas Dodman, he’s interested in animal behavior.” Whereupon Lady Thatcher rolled her eyes heavenward and said, “Ah, yes, behavior, that’s what it’s all about really, isn’t it.” And the great lady was right, her wits sharpened by years of verbal sparring in the House of Commons.

We own animals because there behavior endears them to us. They accept us with unconditional love and repay any kindness or affection in spades. They’re even good for our health, causing us to have lower blood pressure, a better social life and live longer.

Sadly, however, sometimes things go wrong and a behavior that is troublesome or tedious emerges in a pet to dampen an owner’s enthusiasm, sometimes even causing them to give up what they hoped would be a dear friend. That’s where a behaviorist comes in to repair a weakened bond, to correct troublesome behaviors, to put everyone back on the right track and ensure that pets have a happy home for life.

In my future blogs I will discuss some of the issues that arise ranging from aggression through fears and phobias to compulsive behaviors and on down the list. I hope that the insight I provide will help some readers to better understand their pet’s behavior and be able to solve any problems that exist for them. With that final thought, I’ll sign off but I’ll be back again before too long with the first installment of a blog that could be called Pets on the Couch.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

Are Shelter Pets Really More Appreciative?

Posted by & filed under Articles, Dr. Nick, Pet Care Advice.

by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

I know my dog Rusty is appreciative of being “sprung” from the shelter – he was on the very first day we got him, and still is. And my other rescued dog, Jasper, now has a spring in his step and a wag of tail that weren’t there when we first acquired him. But he has since grown into his new-found freedom and now enjoys life to the full. So I would say yes to the question and list my reasons below.

Many of the pets in shelters are there for no reason of their own. Maybe they barked too much, damaged furniture, lifted a leg on the dresser once too often, or had “accidents” in the home – all eminently fixable problems – and mostly completely normal behaviors – and then, all of a sudden, they find themselves out in the cold. Shelters, of course, welcome them warmly, but the facilities there can leave a lot to be desired. A shelter is not the Ritz Carlton by any measure — or more specifically is not a home. It doesn’t take too many days in a bare-walled run without any immediate canine companionship or timely attention to make a dog think “What did I do to deserve this?” and “Where are my people?” I anthropomorphize but you get the point. Shelter dogs must at least be truly puzzled by their new predicament. Then – at last — along comes someone, you perhaps, with a spring in your step and a smile on your face as you stand admiringly in front of the cage door. The dog jumps for joy at the attention – the cat purrs and rubs against the bars. It’s almost as if they are saying, “take me — please.” When you do take them out for evaluation, they are thrilled. So many people say “He chose me.” And so he did. They know a kind face when they see one – dogs have recently been shown to recognize the human smile as something positive — and are grateful to have met you. These pets are even more grateful when they wind up in your car, and then your home. Yippee, someone who cares and pets me, they must think. Hey, good food! A couch to curl up on and, for dogs, an outside yard and longer, more regular walks. Who knows, maybe they even find themselves with a pet companion. But most of all, it’s you the owner who receives (and deserves) credit for the new situation.

Some dogs are so appreciative of their new owner and home that they become almost overly attached. It is as if they were formerly adrift on the sea of life like some useless flotsam and jetsam, and then suddenly there is you – a soul mate never to be let out of site for fear of a repeat desertion. I am, of course, referring to the over-attachment syndrome of separation anxiety. But don’t worry, that too can be addressed, too, by an ensuring an entertaining environment when you are away and by training the dog, or cat, to stand on its own four paws. I call this “independence training” or confidence building. It can be done. But think about it, a rescued dog or cat’s profound attachment to you, is really a great compliment. And these highly devoted pets are a joy to be with – but they must also be taught to cope when left alone.

Puppy mill dogs who find their way into peoples’ home via one or more failed relationships and then a shelter often don’t really know what freedom or true affection are. They come into a new home eyes wide shut – so to speak – not knowing much about caring owners or the creature comforts of a loving home. But, with the right treatment from kindly owners, they come around in due course. One thing’s for sure, when they finally realize they have fond their right match, they never want to go back the way they came and their behaviors show it. So do I think they’re appreciative their new life and new owners? You betcha!

Finally there are dogs who have had a really tough life fending for themselves. As the old verse goes, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.” Dogs may have been semi-feral, wandering in amorphous bands scavenging what they can. Sato dogs, potcake dogs, and dogs abandoned in early life fall into this category. Semi-feral or abandoned cats fall into this category, too. These are the waifs and strays of the canine and feline world. Kind people round them up and transport these often confused animals hundreds of miles to a shelter for adoption. Like the “failed relationship” dogs mentioned above, they join a human family with some trepidation at first. Such dogs may not bark much, don’t seem to know how to play or even climb stairs. Cats of this ilk may hide, not knowing what travesty is going to befall them next. But all of these pets come will around eventually, it just takes time. They eventually build good relationships with benign owners and eventually behave almost exactly like dogs of from traditional backgrounds, except they may retain some fear of people or other dogs who gave them grief in their former life. Given the choice of the former life in the streets and the new one at home with a caring owner, I know what they would chose. I would say they’re grateful.

Of course, there are dogs who have never had to suffer the indignity of being unwanted. These lucky dogs who are adopted from a good breeder at a young age and who were and are cared for and cossetted like a precious nest egg. These dogs were, in manner of speaking, born with a silver bowl in their mouths. Sure they are happy. Sure they love their owners. But they can never be truly thankful for being rescued, because they weren’t. As wonderful as the “silver bowl dogs” are, there is something special about the gratitude a rescue must feel when he remembers where he started out. And I’m sure dogs do remember.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

Biting the Hand that Feeds

Posted by & filed under Articles, Dr. Nick, Pet Care Advice.

by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

Many dogs display some level of aggression to their owners over food. Resource guarding – for that’s what it is – is one aspect of what is now referred to as conflict aggression. It is not so much a condition in and of itself but rather reflects an uncertain situation that the dog finds itself in. The response of a dog in a situation of uncertainty over its owner’s actions can range from a growl to a lip lift to a snap – or even to a bite. Owners of such dogs often report that he is a “perfectly fine dog for ninety-eight percent of the time but then he suddenly turns on us for no apparent reason.” I believe that the dog thinks exactly the same thing about them. He knows and even likes his owners for ninety-eight percent of the time. But then – out of character –they challenge him in some way. It’s often not just a hand-in-food issue that’s involved. Dogs can guard any “valuable resource” of a food or non-food type — or act out in response to unwelcome physical interventions, chastisement or punishment. The dog’s response under these circumstances may be only shown to certain individuals in the household – usually ones who are more invasive and ones who don’t command sufficient trust and respect. The good news about owner-directed aggression is that it is often quite easy to fix and need not occur at all if people understand what to do – and what not to do. Below is my recipe for success when dealing with this sometimes thorny problem.

Avoid unnecessary confrontation

1) Food Aggression – If a dog growls or worse around its food bowl, it is telling its owner that it does not appreciate being disturbed while it’s eating. The solution – don’t do it! I would not like it if a person kept interfering with my food while I was eating so I can understand the dog’s point of view. Some dogs have become so unsure of their owner’s actions around the food bowl that they will growl at them if they walk too close to the bowl while they are eating. This warning signals a lack of trust on the part of the dog who is unsure of his owner’s intentions. To avoid this situation, simply feed the dog in a place where he can eat undisturbed and leave him alone to eat. Whatever others might say, there is no necessity to add food, touch a dog’s food while he is eating, or to feed him in a high traffic area — so simply avoid these conflicts. In time, he’ll come to trust you and will appreciate the fact that you respect his boundaries.

2) Real bones, rawhides and other delicious long-lasting food treats – If a dog finds such food items so powerfully emotive that he wants to protect them from you, the situation can easily be addressed by not giving them to him in the first place. After all, if you gave a child a pen knife and he stabbed in the leg with it you would confiscate it. Well, it’s the same philosophy. In addition, not many of these food items are unhealthful and most are considered taboo by various veterinary experts including nutritionists, veterinary dentists, internists and surgeons who fully appreciate the consequences of providing such items.

3) Disturbing a dog when he is sleeping – Shakespeare said, “Let sleeping dogs lie,” and Geoffrey Chaucer, the English medieval bard expressed similar sentiments a few hundred years before that. A dog that growls at you if you physically disturb him when he is resting is telling you he doesn’t like you doing that. So don’t do it. It’s a little bit like one of the Henny Youngman jokes where someone goes to the doctor and says, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this,” and his response is, “Well, don’t do that.”

4) Postural interventions – If a dog doesn’t like it when you stare at him, pet him in a certain way, groom him, touch his feet, or groom him, once again, he’s telling you he doesn’t like these interventions. If you want to be his trusted friend, you will appreciate his wishes and think around the circumstances that cause him grief so as to avoid such unnecessary conflict. Let groomers or vets do the tricky stuff instead. What happens at the vet’s stays at the vets – and they know how to handle such dogs.

5) Making a dog do something he doesn’t want to do – This is another one of those circumstances where the dog’s reaction is perfectly logical. For example, if he wants to run out of the door and you try to stop him by grabbing him by the collar or scruff. In that case he may turn around and try and prevent you from doing that using the language of aggression. Grabbing the collar never means good things are about to happen. Quite the reverse. It is far better to think ahead so that you do not have to physically apprehend a dog or force him to do something against his wishes. In the example given, simply put him in another room or behind a kiddy gate before opening the front door would work well. There’s a way of avoiding all these circumstances if you think about them carefully.

6) In response to admonition of physical punishment – Some dogs may cower if so treated but others will retaliate. The bottom line here is that physical punishment in the form of hitting the dog with a hand or rolled up newspaper or yelling at him and getting in his face is neither necessary nor productive. It will just turn him against you and escalate aggression all round. It is far better to use reward-based training, and remember, the opposite of reward is not punishment — it’s no reward.

No Free Lunch

Meals – Dogs who have been displaying any level of aggression toward their owners or family members for whatever reason should be required to earn their food by responding to a command. For this program to be effective the dog should be fed meals and not allowed to graze free choice. At breakfast time, the owner comes down, puts the food in a bowl, stands in front of the dog and issues a one word command, “Sit” works well (assuming he knows the command). The dog is given a few seconds to respond and the desired response (his sitting) is rewarded immediately by putting the food down in front of him. Then he should be left in peace to eat his meal. Once he has finished eating, whether the bowl is empty or not, it should be picked up. A generous time allowance for eating is fifteen minutes. An automatic sit is not rewarded – instead the dog is given a different command, like Down – the point being that he must respond to a command to get his food. If he doesn’t sit or lie down when instructed to do so within a three second window of time, he simply misses that meal. You return at dinner time and give him the same opportunity to respond. Some dogs know exactly what you’re saying but simply refuse to do what they’re being asked to do. I have seen dogs go two or three days without eating before they finally succumb and understand that the owner has ultimate control over the food resource. Don’t worry, dogs aren’t designed to eat three square meals a day. In nature they may go a couple of days between meals unless the hunting is exceptionally good.

Treats – The same strategy should be applied to treats. Owners should remember that it is not their job to ply the dog with treats but rather the dog’s job to earn treats from them by responding appropriately. Some people have even called this program the “say please program” as it is really tantamount to insisting on good manners.

Other things that must be earned – Having a dog work to get his daily meals from all family members and to earn his treats is often all that it takes to turn a dog from a growling complainer to an understanding companion. However, it is sometimes possible for an owner to balance one more earning opportunity for the dog as well as the above measures. For example, a dog of this nature could be required to work for a favorite toy or for petting or access. I think it is best, however, for people not to try to have the dog earn too many different things otherwise the program gets too complicated and the family ends up doing nothing at all.

If this program of avoiding confrontation and having the dog earn valued resources, particularly food and treats, is enacted religiously by all family members, about ninety percent of people find their dog is much improved and more livable after a period of two months. Seventy percent of people say their dog is cured and all they have done is to set a few limits of acceptable behavior while providing a less confusing environment for the dog.

Dogs thrive much better when they have some daily structure and routine that they understand, particularly if their owners are not getting in their face all the time. I like to think of this program within the context or what I call the three F’s — fun, fair and firm. Fun in the sense that you should have fun with your dog – that’s why you have a dog in the first place. Fair in the sense that you never ask him to do anything unreasonable or beyond his limitations. Firm in the sense that you have a few basic house rules from which you never waver. Using this approach – setting limits, if you will — the dogs seem happier and often become non-aggressive. I’m sure owners will appreciate the relief such a program brings and it helps dogs remain in their home for life instead them being surrendered or returned to the shelter.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

Surprisingly Easy Dog Behaviors to Change

Posted by & filed under Articles, Dr. Nick, Pet Care Advice.

by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

Whether you acquire your dog from a shelter or from a breeder, some will come with — or develop — vexing behaviors of one sort or another. In fact, some 42% to 90% of owners when asked point blank if their dog exhibits any, even minor, behavior problems will admit that it does. What these owners often fail to realize, though, is that most of these behavior problems are surprisingly easy to treat as long as owners take the right course of action. I will list a few of the more common behavior problems and their solutions below.

Submissive Urination (otherwise known as Super-submission)
Some young dogs have what is to us an annoying way of expressing their deference and respect in that they squat or roll and urinate when approached as an appeasement gesture. While this problem usually disappears of its own accord within a year or so, its termination can be hastened by avoiding the circumstances that trigger it while working in the background to build the dogs confidence. Avoiding triggers might be as simple as not looking directly into the dog’s eyes when returning home or walking around the offender in a circuitous path rather than approaching it directly. Alternatively, dogs can be trained to bring a toy to those entering the home or to go to a dog bed when people arrive, both behaviors incompatible with the act of submission. Background measures involve building the dog’s confidence by ensuring positive interactions with all strangers, never punishing or yelling at the dog, and allowing it as much free rein as possible. Playing tug-of-war with an under-confident pup and allowing it to win will also build its confidence and self-respect.

Separation Anxiety
It is said that 15% to 17% of the nation’s dogs suffer from clinically diagnosable separation anxiety, which manifests itself in several ways ranging from excessive vocalization, destructive behavior, and inappropriate elimination – all occurring only when the owner is away. The trick here is to change the dog’s perception of “alone time” by ensuring that a plethora of good things are made available when you’re away. For example, if you feed your dog immediately before you leave and leave out a variety of tasty food-stuffed toys, you will be appealing to his sense of taste. Leaving out non-food item chew toys, perhaps enhanced with some novel odor like vanilla, anise, or even hunting lure, will appeal to his sense of taste and smell. Providing him a room with a view or leaving on the TV or radio will appeal to his sense of vision and hearing. Dog TV (DOGTV.Com) works well for many dogs and has bio-acoustically engineered music in the “relaxation” phase. On returning, your greeting should be kept low key and all the goodies should be picked up immediately so that they are not available when you are!

Owner-Directed Aggression
Various forms of aggression are quite common in dogs and account for the majority of behavior problems. Owner-directed aggression is one such type. This is easily handled in most cases by simply avoiding unnecessary confrontations by, for example, not putting your hand in the dog’s food bowl while he is eating eliminating particularly emotive treats, like rawhides, and not physically waking the dog up when he is resting or sleeping. Even Shakespeare said, “Let sleeping dogs lie”, and that’s a good axiom. In addition, there should be new house rules, requiring the dog to sit or lie down to receive meals or treats. This last measure alone was sufficient to prevent owner-directed aggression in pushy puppies, according to one Master’s Degree thesis.

Fear Aggression to Strangers
Unfortunately, all too many dogs are not properly socialized from a young age and some have even been mistreated. This results in certain apprehensiveness toward strangers in young dogs. As they get older, that apprehension and fearfulness can take a proactive turn in that they will begin to bark at, lunge toward, or even bite strangers who approach them.

The key to dealing with this problem is ensuring that owners properly control dogs of this persuasion to prevent any unfortunate accidents and to teach the dog acceptable behaviors in the presence of strangers. If the owner is firmly in charge of the situation, the dog will appreciate that and will defer to them since it now no longer necessary to take unilateral action. The best way to control such a dog and instill an owner’s leadership is through the use of head halter such as the Gentle Leader®. With the dog under proper control, the next job is to ensure that strangers don’t make unwelcome advances. Preferably, they should not look into the dog’s eyes, should not walk directly toward it, should not attempt to pet it or even talk to it — and they certainly should not reach a trembling hand toward the dog as a gesture of appeasement. The dog will not understand any of these advances as, uninvited, they penetrate the dog’s personal space and are interpreted by the dog as a threat or challenge.

With the dog and stranger under control, there is one more important ingredient to fold into the mix. That is counter-conditioning — literally training an opposite expectation – through the supply of food treats, tennis balls, or whatever the dog likes, to be provided by strangers at each meeting. In time the dog learns my owner’s in control, strangers never bother me and, what’s more, they come bearing gifts. All of this sets the dog on the right learning curve.

Fear Aggression to Other Dogs
This is another common problem that is created for exactly the same reasons as fear aggression to strangers — lack of socialization and/or unfortunate experiences. Owners’ control of the situation is paramount, again, by virtue of a head halter, avoidance of negative encounters, and/or the judicious use of a muzzle when the dog is off lead.

Storm Phobia
Dogs who are terrified of storms are pitiful and most simply seek their owner’s company or hide when storms occur. Everything is much worse when the owner is not home and some severely affected dogs will destroy property during severe weather events as their owner is not there for moral support. Treatment of this condition involves providing a safe place for a dog to go to during storms – a location akin to a tornado bunker, preferably in an out-of-the-way place like a cellar or a heavily curtained, relatively sound-proof room. Training the dog to go to this safe place during storms requires the owner to physically bring the dog to the selected location during storms. The room should be plied with all sorts of good things, including food treats, toys, and the owner can keep the dog occupied with interactive games. Bright lights in the area will obscure darkened skies and trace lightning flashes. In addition, calming bio-acoustic music (e.g. “Through a Dog’s Ear” ®) can be played at a volume loud enough to serve as white noise. In time, the dog will take himself to the safe place on his own when he realizes that it gets him out of harm’s way. Finally, the Storm Defender® cape is effective in a large percentage of dogs with this phobia, though in extreme cases medication might be necessary as well.

Excessive Barking
All dogs bark. The old saying is, “If you don’t like a dog that barks, get a cat.” But it’s true, you can have too much of a good thing. Dogs bark for a number of different reasons and it is helpful to find out why a particular dog barks so that something can be done about it. For barking that takes the form of attention seeking, simply ignoring the dog for at least three weeks is the best solution. For dogs with excessive territorial barking, simply denying them access to windows at the front of the house, repositioning couches away from front windows, drawing blinds, and so on, can be effective to attenuate overstimulation. What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve! For dogs that bark because of separation anxiety, the treatment mentioned above should be brought into play.

Running Away
The most common cry we hear from owners is that all they want is their run-away dog to do is come when he is called. And most dogs can be trained to do just that. To teach a dog to come when called, he must first be trained on a long lead, perhaps even a washing line attached to his collar. First from a short distance, the command is given, “Rover, come here, good boy” (praising him so he knows he is not in trouble). If he comes immediately, he should be praised lavishly and given a memorable food treat – something really delicious. That will reinforce the behavior (positive reinforcement). If he doesn’t come immediately when called, another element is added to the sequence: 1. Give the command, 2. Make it happen by reeling him in, 3. He winds up sitting in front of you as desired, 4. reward him as before (even though you had to make it happen). The bottom line: when you say the magic words, you ensure that the desired response always occurs, and he is always be praised or otherwise rewarded. For the occasional dog with a chronic running away problem, you may need to keep him on a long line or walk him off leash only in a fenced-in.

Whatever behavior problem your new or old friend is showing, there is always a way forward. There is an old saying, “That as long as you are on the right path you will eventually get where you’re going.” All I have done is explain that path for the various conditions mentioned above. The journey down that path may be long or may be short but, like every journey, it begins with the first step and continues with the very essence of training — consistency and patience on the part of the trainer (that would be you!).

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

Things to do Before Returning Your Dog to the Shelter

Posted by & filed under Articles, Dr. Nick, Pet Care Advice.

by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

According to a very large study of 1,000 shelters across the United States, approximately 60% of surrendered dogs were eventually placed in new homes. The balance of dogs was euthanized, returned to their owners, or transferred to other entities. The sad thing is that approaching 10% of dogs that are successfully adopted are eventually returned to the shelter because they are somehow not meeting up to expectations. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the main reason for these returns is behavior that the new owners find unacceptable in their home. But before they return their dog because of some unacceptable behavior problem, they should think twice because there is usually something that can be done so that the dog’s return is no longer necessary.

When I adopted my dog, Rusty, from a shelter it wasn’t too long before I realized that he suffered from submissive urination and separation anxiety. If I had wanted a perfect dog I would have returned him then and there, but that isn’t what I do. I had made a commitment to him and persevered through several cleanups while I built up his confidence. It wasn’t too long before I had pretty much the perfect dog, now my best friend and an outstanding family member. Below are a few of the things that might cause owners to return their dog to the shelter prematurely and advice on how to handle those problems so that they may emulate my experience with Rusty.

1) Submission urination – Many dogs from shelters have not had the most rosy of lives before they wind up there and some of them exhibit submissive urination. As frustrating that this behavior might be, it is actually a great compliment. It takes the form of the dog expressing his deference and great respect for you (or your guests) by squatting and rolling or wiggling excitedly and urinating on the floor, especially during greetings. Unknowing owners scold their dogs – which makes the situation worse. The dog just thinks well, I clearly need to be more deferent next time and so engages in more squatting, more rolling and more urinating. Instead, it is best to completely ignore a submissive urination. People should avert their eyes on meeting the dog, walk around him in a curved path and become seated as soon as possible. Only when things have finally settled down, should they show the dog any attention. Confidence building strategies like playing tug-of-war – and letting the dog win – help as part of a confidence-building strategy. This program loosely entails ensuring that, for the dog, everything in life is free – no need to “earn” things by obeying a command. Paraphrasing from a Dire Straits song, he gets petting for nothing and his treats for free. Problems will be resolved using this approach in due course.

2) Separation anxiety – This is another condition that affects some shelter dogs after they have settled into their new homes. Once again, this troubling behavior is really a compliment because it means that the dog has bonded closely with you and misses you terribly while you’re away. Strategies for dealing with this behavior are posted on websites like Petplace.com and generally involve attention to four aspects of the dog’s life. Here’s what to do …

1) On leaving – Do not sympathize with the dog. Instead, make departures happy times in which food treats, puzzles, toys, and all sorts of goodies rain from the sky (actually from you) for your dog’s entertainment and gastronomic pleasure.

2) While you are away – The food and treats lying around will appeal to your dog’s sense of taste, while chew-toys and a comfy bed will pleasantly address his sense of touch. A room with a view or Dog TV will appeal to your dog’s sight (vision) and provide entertainment to help keep him interested and distracted. You can also appeal to a dog’s powerful sense of smell with novel scents such as vanilla, anise, and hunting lures applied to plush (but indestructible) toys.

3) On your return – If your dog exhibits an exuberant greeting, it’s okay to say, "Hi, Buddy," but that’s about all until he has totally settled down. The idea is to smooth the emotional rollercoaster of otherwise extreme mood swings from misery (when you leave) to joy (when you return).

4) While you’re home together – The only time you can train a dog is when you’re home with him. The idea is to train independence by ensuring that the dog does not always follow you around or learns that is it unnecessary to be in constant close contact with you. Some (what I call) “distancing” is required. This can be achieved by discouraging Velcro® behavior during the day and having the dog sleep in a dog bed at night.

With all these measures in place, your dog will eventually come around but it takes time and patience – as do most things that are worthwhile.

3) Fear aggression – Some dogs in shelters have been mistreated by people, often men and children. Quite understandably, they develop a fear of individuals who remind of people who have mistreated them in the past and they react accordingly. While shrinking violets may cower and run away, dogs with a more defiant character will stand their ground and bark and circle or even lunge, nip at or bite at visitors to the home or strangers they encounter on walks. This is problem that can be controlled by making sure the dog has plenty of exercise and has clear communication and leadership from you. We find head halters like the Gentle Leader™ extremely useful for demonstrating touch for what you want the dog to do. You can organize your reaction to adverse circumstances and enact the sequence you deem acceptable. For example, you can bring the dog to the door when visitors arrive, tell him to sit – with a one word command – and enforce the “sit” by gentle upward pressure on the Gentle Leader™ (not opening the door until he complies). Strangers should enter ignoring him, but come bearing gifts. That’s the bones of a program that will control a good percentage of dogs with this issue whether encountering visitors to the home or meeting strangers out on walks. With fear aggression toward other dogs, it’s the same story.

4) Owner-Directed Aggression – Some confused dogs endowed with a mite of willfulness, anxiety, and mistrust may growl, show their teeth, snap or lunge at new owners in the context of possessiveness of valued assets like food, toys or their bed, or may resist being touched in certain ways, stared at or admonished. This is a relatively easy problem to solve in little more than two months by engaging in the famous Nothing-in-Life-is-Free-Program. The essential ingredients of this program are:

5) Avoid all confrontations – There is no point in butting heads – that just makes things worse, and
Having the dog earn all food, treats, and maybe some other valued resources by obeying a one-word command in order to receive them. Lack of compliance simply means the dog does not get what is in the offing. Dogs soon learn which way is up – that you, the new owner – are in charge and the conditional supplier of good things.

6) Thunderstorm Phobia – Some people adopt a dog only to find out at the first thunderstorm that the dog panics and becomes hysterical. When at home, perhaps new owners may cope by simply complying with its need for comfort and support – but when a thunderstorm occurs when they’re out, serious destructive and escape behavior can result. Thunderstorm phobia can be addressed by using any one of a number of anti-anxiety wraps. Our preference is for the Storm Defender®, which has an anti-static lining as well as providing a swaddling effect. Also, the dog can be taught to go to a safe place in a room that is prepared to be relatively sound-proof and preferably windowless (windows can be blocked with screens, curtains, etc.). In some cases, “as needed” medication may be helpful to control severe storm phobia.

7) House soiling – Some owners adopt a dog only to find that their new friend is not properly house trained. Perhaps as a result of spending days or weeks in a shelter, he may have lost his house training ethic. Rather than returning the dog to the shelter because he has a glitch, it’s best to retrain him. It doesn’t take long. In fact, a New York best-selling book rightly was entitled How to Housebreak Your Dog in 7 days. Retraining is simply a matter of taking the dog on lead to a selected bathroom area outside for several minutes several times a day, praising him and rewarding him immediately when he performs the desired function. If the outing meets with no success, the dog should be temporarily confined in a crate or behind a kiddy gate for 10-15 minutes before trying again. Confinement is designed as a punishment; it is a preventive measure to help the dog not make “mistakes.” Thorough cleanup of previously soiled areas with an odor neutralizer, preferably Zero Odor®, is essential. House soiling is one of the easiest and quickest problems to resolve and need not be a show stopper.

Conclusion: With these solutions in mind, you can see that it’s just a matter of identifying the behavior of concern and addressing it appropriately, not giving up on the dog and returning him to the shelter. Returning faulty products to the store is something we don’t think twice about but dogs – living things – should not enter into that equation or be part of that mindset. Careful thought prior to adoption to make sure that the dog is the right dog for you is the starting point for successful adoption. Sometimes things can be a little rocky to start with as you get to know each other. I can tell you from personal experience with my dog, Rusty, and my other adopted dog – Jasper – that honoring your commitment and patiently working through problems is something that produces enormous rewards. Don’t give up, hang in there, and seek advice from a knowledge professional if you find it difficult to go it alone.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

8 Factors to Consider When Adopting a Cat From a Shelter

Posted by & filed under Articles, Dr. Nick, Pet Care Advice.

by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

Cats make wonderful pets and there are far too many these day languishing in shelters. To adopt a cat and save a life is a wonderful thing to do and will provide the adopter a friend for life. Cats are easy keepers. Pretty much all they need is a loving home, some toys, food, water, and occasional petting (okay sometimes more than an occasional petting). Although choosing a cat that’s right for you is not as challenging as adopting the right dog, there are still a few things to consider.

While kittens are cute and entertaining, they do require a little more work and more patience than an older cat. There are also various start-up chores, like vaccination, deworming and some training. Then there’s exuberant kitten energy to contend with. Some novice kitten owners think that their six- month old adoptee kitten has gone crazy because it rushes around the house like a mad thing – what we call the zoomies. Others think their kitten may be psychotic because it hides behind doors and pounces on their feet. These are normal (and essential) kitten behaviors which can sometimes last even beyond the first year of life. Kittens’ energies must be channeled by their new owner onto appropriate substrates, such as mobile toys, feather wands, and toys pulled along on a string. Alternatively if two kittens are adopted together they will expend their energies wrestling and chasing each other. That takes the heat off the owner, and think of it — that would be two lives saved!

Most cats fall into a category I refer to as “domestic shorthair”. Basically, these cats are a mix but they can be just as friendly and loving as any other cat. Another category is the “domestic long hair”, one of which I used to own. Again, these are usually very fine cats but the long hair does come with some grooming requirements — but more on that later. Then there are the purebreds, which you rarely find in shelters but, occasionally, one turns up. It is always a temptation to adopt one of these special breeds but remember they come with certain breed-typical behavioral characteristics that you should research before you dive in. Abyssinians, for example, tend to be very high energy cats who are often in constant motion. Persians, on the other hand, are rather quiet. Either type of cat may suit you — or not — depending on your personality and lifestyle. If you don’t mind having things knocked off shelves and find that amusing, an Abyssinian may well be your cup of tea. On the other hand, if you are the sedentary type, a Persian might suit. There are the other exotic Oriental breeds of cat which look just dandy but beware, Siamese for example, tend to be very vocal and all Oriental breeds in general are prone to compulsive behaviors like over-grooming and wool-sucking.

It doesn’t really matter whether you adopt a male or female as cats are usually neutered at the shelter before you get them. That said, a neutered male or female is not an “it” but still bears the hallmark of its true sex. Males may be slightly more likely to get into tangles and are more prone to urine mark. If either of these attributes bothers you, the safer bet might be a female. Also remember, adopting cats of opposite sexes is more likely to result in a more harmonious pair.

Grooming Requirements
Very long-haired cats sometimes have difficulty in keeping themselves properly groomed and may need some help from you. If they do manage to cope with this onerous task, it tends to create hairballs which are then barfed up on your rug. So it’s a good idea to employ a stripping brush or comb at regular intervals to reduce the frequency of this unpleasant event.

Cost of Upkeep
There is nothing worse than bringing home an animal of any kind and suddenly realizing that the cost of upkeep, including veterinary care, a quality diet, and so on, is too much for your budget. Pets are no different from humans in that a healthful, natural diet (including of course Halo natural pet food) correlates with a very wide range of health advantages, including safeguarding against allergies, intestinal problems, obesity, diabetes and other food-related issues. Feeding a high quality natural pet food is your best chance at achieving long term pet health. It may cost a bit more to buy quality food but is definitely a well worthwhile proposition. Think ahead and budget accordingly–and consider getting pet health insurance for costly medical issues.

Exercise Requirements
Believe it or not cats need exercise [it’s not just for the dogs]. This doesn’t mean you have to take them down to the park to run around and, anyway, that wouldn’t be wise. What it does mean is that you should spend some time engaging your cat daily in the kind of play that blows off steam and expends energy. The kinds of games that afford this are, for example, chasing toys attached to strings or a “laser mouse.” This kind of chasing play should provide you with some amusement as well the requisite exercise for your cat. Budget 30 minutes per day for such activities

It is difficult to temperament test a cat but often you’ll get a chance to sit and meet the prospective adoptee in the shelter along with other cats and people. If the shelter staff allow such an intimate interaction, it means they have faith that your cat is friendly. But remember, just because a cat is unfriendly in the stressful situation of the shelter doesn’t mean that it will be that way at home. I adopted a cat who was reported to be aggressive and impossible to place in a home with another animal. I adopted him — Griswold — anyway and though he sometimes gets his back up with a strange dog, he has totally adapted to our home, lifestyle and our two dogs. He is not aggressive at all to us or them.

Interaction with Other Pets
Following on from the previous section it is well to give some consideration to how the new cat may react with any pets that you have. It is a fact that not all cats necessarily get on just because they’re cats. Some are antagonistic toward each other — their personalities just don’t mix. The only way to ascertain this discord is by trial and error. It would be great if the shelter would allow you to bring the cat home in a carrier to see if there are any antagonistic interactions. If they won’t allow that, you’ll just have to make your best guess based on whether your home cat and the cat to be adopted are sociable and equable with others of their own kind. Also, remember that not all dogs like cats, so if you have a dog at home, especially one not used to cats and with a high prey drive, he may see your new addition as prey and chase it and make its life miserable for all.

I don’t mean to suggest that adopting a cat is a super-tricky business that must be engaged in with trepidation and great caution. That’s not really the case. The topics I have addressed above are just things to think about as you stroll around the shelter looking for a cat who you like and who likes you. In most cases, adoptions work out perfectly well for all concerned, but it never hurts to think ahead.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

Adopting an Older Dog From a Shelter

Posted by & filed under Articles, Dr. Nick, Pet Care Advice.

by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

It is a crying shame that older dogs are so difficult to adopt out of shelters. Almost everyone wants a bouncy young puppy or a really cute-looking younger dog. It’s easy to see why these dogs would be attractive. Youth and beauty can be hard to rival. I once visited the Boulder Humane Society as a large shiny bus rolled in with the new arrivals from Utah to be put up for adoption. “Do you want to see them,” I was asked. I jumped at the opportunity. Climbing the stairs into the bus, I was faced with wall-to-wall pets – dogs and cats – all looking at me hopefully, each one in need of a home. But then it struck me. They were all young and good looking. There were white dogs with a black patch over one eye, ghost-grey dogs, dogs with split-colored eyes and a jaunty look, dogs with cute crinkly ears, curly-coated poodle-ish puppies, tortoiseshell cats and cinnamon-colored Abyssinian-type kittens. I said, “They’re all gorgeous. How is that?” The reply came, “We only take the young and cute-looking animals because they’re the ones that are most adoptable. I immediately had a mental image of someone walking down the line of kennels in Utah saying “I’ll take you … not you …this one can come … this one is older dog looks too sad and her coat is straggly – she stays.” And to be let behind was really bad news – but let’s not get into that. In another shelter I visited, Animal Friends in Pittsburgh, one of the principals had made it her personal mission to see that older dogs got adopted. Sometimes that’s what it takes, a champion like her to root for the older dogs and explain to prospective new owners what they’re all about. Here’s why you should consider adopting an older dog:

  • They’re a known quantity.
    Older dogs are physically and mentally mature – that happens at 2-3 years of age. Literally what you see is what you get. There are no mysteries here. Potential adopters might want to enquire why the dog was dropped off at the shelter, ask the staff about the pet’s behavior in the shelter, and take him or her out of the shelter environment to evaluate his interactions and behavior toward them. Armed with this information, good matches are made by good judgement, not merely sheer luck!
  • They are already house trained, vaccinated and neutered.
    Older dogs are almost always house trained and older cats know that the litter box spells sweet relief. Both dogs and cats will come fully vaccinated and will already be neutered. There’s no work to do here.
  • Lower exercise requirements and steady temperament.
    Older pets usually have low exercise requirements, are of even temperament and are easy keepers. For people who are older themselves, or who have some physical limitation of their own, adopting an older pet may be match made in heaven.
  • They come with experience.
    Older pets come with a lifetime of experience. They are mature and can be easier to have around. Dogs will probably have some training in place and cats too may have a better of people and other pets.
  • They make great pets and will be truly thankful for a loving home.
    All pets who have lost their owners and find themselves kenneled and awaiting new ownership (though they don’t know that) must be overjoyed at being “sprung” from the institution, however clean and well run. They will surely appreciate that they have a savior and will thoroughly enjoy the creature comforts of their new home.
  • They need your help and you will grow to love them
    These pets really need your help. Initially, the bond between the two of you may be warm and friendly but it will grow over time to become an inseparable friendship. Love is not too strong a word to use here. I know this from first-hand experience with my dog Jasper, who was middle aged when I rescued him. He has become a true and loving family member whose initial trepidation has been replaced with a relaxed knowledge of his own security and a belief that his new owners – my wife and I — aren’t going anywhere. We are here for him. It has been a heart-warming transformation to witness. Ditto with my rescued cat Griswald

Many older dogs and cats find themselves in shelters through no fault of their own. There are several reasons why people relinquish pets of any age. I once heard from a friend at HSUS that 20% of people surrender their pet because they are “too old.” Surrendering a senior pet to a shelter seems particularly harsh. How could anyone give up on their old friend? Reasons include impatience over potentially resolvable behavioral issues, moving home (possibly a new landlord who does not allow pets), divorce, people’s work schedule changing, an owner dying and no one in the family prepared to look after the pet.

These pets need someone to step up and look after them in their golden years and they will match or even exceed in loyal companionship what the new owner contributes in care and guardianship. It is true that an older pet, say a 10 year old dog or 12 year old cat has “more mileage on the clock” in terms of lifespan, but those last years can be an absolute joy for all concerned.

Certainly some pets may develop old-age medical issues, like arthritis or possibly renal disease, but most of these old-age conditions – if they occur — can be successfully managed these days thanks to modern day veterinary medicine. The look in the eyes of a “good old dog” or “good old cat” that you have rescued and are looking after will say it all. "An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language" — Martin Buber once wrote. Looking into your pet’s eyes, you’ll know you did the right thing. Altruistic acts like rescuing pets of any age — but especially stranded older pets – will give caring new owners a warm feeling inside of having done the right thing by saving a life and providing a good home for a pet in need. Aesop said, “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” I would add that no act of kindness goes without its own intrinsic reward.

Factors To Consider When Adopting A Dog From A Shelter

Posted by & filed under Articles, Dr. Nick, Pet Care Advice.

by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

By choosing the right shelter dog for you and your family, you are doing yourself a huge favor because of the joy and warmth it will bring to your home. You are also doing the dog a huge favor by giving him a second chance in life. The operative words, however, are the right dog – because mismatches sometimes occur, resulting in disappointment all around. There are a number of different factors to bear in mind when adopting a shelter dog into your family circle to (hopefully) become everyone’s best friend. I am listing some of the more important considerations below, in no particular order, and will make brief comments about each.


While most people prefer to adopt a puppy, or at least a younger dog, there are plenty of middle-aged or older dogs who are really in need of a home and many are really sweet dogs who find themselves in hard times for no fault of their own. You shouldn’t dismiss rescuing one of these poor souls on the basis of age because the rewards can be great. Also note that young puppies are always a work in progress whereas with older dogs what you see is what you get.

Breed or Mixed Breed?

There are not so many pure bred dogs in shelters, but there are some. With purebreds, you can simply refer to a breed standard to learn about aspects of their personality, eventual size, and any medical problems that may afflict them. Websites like this one – Petwave.com – can be very helpful here. Purebreds are, in a manner of speaking, a known quantity. Mixed breed dogs, like my own, are a mixed bag but in general are somewhat healthier and are often longer lived than many purebreds.

Male or Female?

Truth be known, there is not a lot of difference behaviorally between a neutered male and neutered female dog. However, a neutered dog is not an “it” and some retain aspects of their sex-typical behavior. This doesn’t usually translate into much trouble for future owners, but if adopting more than one dog, note that males and females often get on better than same sex pairs.


Whatever people say, size does matter. Smaller dogs are much less expensive to keep in terms of their food requirements and medications. The extra cost of keeping a large-sized dog may not be a big deal for some folk – but when the food bill comes in at around $70 per month with heartworm treatment an extra $50 per month (instead of $60 for the two) that may be an important factor affecting your decision.

Grooming Requirements

It may seem self-evident but some of the shorter-haired breeds are easier keepers grooming-wisethan the oh-so-elegant medium or long-haired dogs. Some woolly-coated dogs need daily grooming to keep their coats looking good as well as to minimize shedding. For some people this may not be an issue but for others the daily chore of grooming may be something of a tipping point.

Exercise Requirements

In one of my books, I described dogs as either a) couch potatoes with very low exercise requirements, b) requiring moderate exercise and c) a third group – who I referred to as the runners – who require a whole lot of exercise to keep them happy and livable. You can see how a potential owner’s lifestyle factors in here. If you are a relatively sedentary person or live in a small apartment, a large breed dog might be best for you because their exercise requirements are usually fairly low. If you are an outdoorsy type who lives in the country and you love hiking and running (plus good company) then a runner might work well for you. If the breed of the dog is known then so are exercise requirements. For mixed breed dogs the answer to the question about their exercise requirements is not always clear but typically those dogs with higher energy in the shelter, the ones that jump and bark a lot, require more exercise. Consider this aspect carefully when selecting a dog for your home.


The ideal dog is friendly with all other dogs and people as well as being totally accepting of and tolerant around children. But just because a dog has an issue with other dogs or takes exception when the UPS man comes knocking doesn’t mean his behavioral issues are necessarily a show stopper. Such problems can be easily managed and would likely diminish with the right type of owner – one who sets clear limits of acceptable behavior. In general, dogs tend to fall into two camps of being either somewhat assertive or, at the other end of the spectrum, somewhat shy and retiring. Of course there are all shades of gray in between these two extremes. More assertive dogs do need no nonsense owners who can be good dog parents. More shy retiring dogs need almost zero rules and kid glove treatment. Either extreme can be brought back to the center with appropriate handling and management.

Interaction with other pets

If you have other pets in the home it’s as well to consider how the addition of a newcomer is likely to work out. Questions you need to ask yourself are is the resident dog relatively tolerant? Is the potential adoptee likely to be both social and accepting? If so, the adoption may work out well. Red flags would be an insanely territorial resident dog or a shelter dog with known issues with others of his kind. Likewise, the interaction of an incoming dog with a resident cat must be carefully considered. Some dogs get along well with cats, other do not. This factor alone might be a determining one for some potential adopters.


Whether a dog you might want to adopt is large or small, short-coated or shaggy, fully grown or a pup, is easy to see – it’s factoring that information into your decision making that’s important. What is trickier is determining a dog’s temperament and figuring out how that will impact your relationship or lifestyle. In other words, how compatible with you and yours the dog may be. In order to assess a dog’s personality, it is important to explore three matters: First, what was the reason (if known) that the dog was brought to the shelter in the first place. Bear in mind that not all people leaving dogs at shelters tell the whole story or even the truth. Second, ask the shelter staff how that dog interacts with them and other dogs as the staff are often experienced and knowledgeable about dog behavior. Finally, take the dog out of the shelter environment into a neutral area where you will interact with him or her checking out things like leash walking, petting, mutual bonding, interaction with other dogs and people and, perhaps, even engaging some temperament testing along with a knowledgeable individual. Will that dog fit in well with your family and match their hopes and aspirations? While the ultimate answer as to whether an adoption is successful can only be assessed down the road, considering the aforementioned factors will prevent a well-meaning adopter from making an elementary mistake. Certainly, impulse buying is a really bad idea when it comes to a canine companion who could be – and should be – a close family member for years to come. Take time, consider the facts, and involve others in your decision making.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.