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Claws and Paws: Helping a dog get comfortable with thunderstorms, vacuums

By Steve Dale

These reader questions were answered by Chicago area-based veterinary behaviorist Dr. John Ciribassi, Chicago area-based co-editor (with Dr. Debra Horwitz and myself) of “Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2014; $27). The book is the first-ever authored by members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, veterinarians who specialize in behavioral medicine.

Q: Our 3-year-old Schipperke is very smart, and knows many tricks. She doesn’t like thunderstorms, fireworks, or our vacuum cleaner and shakes uncontrollably. Any ideas? – D. O., Forest Lake, MN

A: “Since your pup enjoys little tricks, she may be a good candidate for what’s called response substitution. Before she gets worried about the oncoming storm, or while someone is vacuuming on the other side of the house, engage her with games,” says Ciribassi.

Or perhaps giving her something safe to chew on can be distracting, such as stuffing low-fat peanut butter or low-fat cream cheese inside a sterilized bone (available wherever pet products are sold).

With a little help from a product like Anxitane (containing L-Theanine) and/or Adaptil (a copy of a calming pheromone), the anxiety may be toned down a notch or two so the pup can tolerate riding out the storm in a comfortable place, such as on a dog bed in a closet or in a corner of the basement. Since your dog is generally anxious, ask your veterinarian about a Royal Canin prescription diet, called CALM.

The basement (if you have one) is often preferred because with music turned up and window blinds closed, it’s the room you can most conceal the changing weather.

Ciribassi notes that some dogs are downright panicked, and can require an anti-anxiety drug as the most humane response. “These are not sedatives,” he explains. “In fact, a sedative isn’t a good idea – now you have a drowsy dog who is still panicked.” The good news about fireworks is that you know exactly when they are likely to happen, and can plan to give the right drug several hours prior. Of course, thunderstorms are more of a challenge.

There is available qualified help from a veterinary behaviorist (dacvb.org) or a veterinarian with a special interest in behavior (avsabonline.org). Also, there’s an entire chapter on thunderstorm anxiety in “Decoding Your Dog.”

Q: What do you do about a dog that bites when he’s touched a certain way? He’s mostly a very loving animal. Can we change this behavior? – M. A. D., Buffalo, NY

A: “Don’t touch him that certain way,” says Ciribassi. “I’m unsure where it is you touch him that triggers the response, but most certainly there may be a medical explanation, which has gone undetected till now. The possibilities are everything from dental disease to arthritis, anything really.”

If medical possibilities are ruled out, you can ask a professional how to desensitize and counter-condition the dog to be touched. Ciribassi says, “If for example, the dog responds to his ear being handled, with one hand nearly touch the ear ever so softly, and offer a treat many times. When the dog doesn’t seem to care, or seeks you doing this because treats are involved, actually touch a bit more, but just for one second and offer the treat simultaneously. Gradually touch the ear and actually stroke the ear. Clicker training is a great way to accomplish this, and a qualified trainer can show you how. In fact, this is the type of exercise which timing is important – so having a qualified trainer show you is ideal.”

Q: I’ve had 3-year-old Pug/Shih Tzu mix adopted 2-months ago from a rescue group. My problem is that he’s urinated in the house three times; each time I haven’t been home. I assume he’s marking his territory. He has a dog door, and could go out to the enclosed patio, which I know he usually does. I don’t want to give him up. Do you have any suggestions? – J. F., Las Vegas, NV

A: Assuming the dog is neutered, Ciribassi says to see your veterinarian to rule out a medical explanation. Also, if you can video tape your dog shortly after you leave the house – the recording will be help to determine if your dog has separation anxiety. Dogs with separation anxiety will demonstrate one or likely several of the following behaviors: Pace, drool excessively, bark, yowl, whine, chew on things they shouldn’t and/or have accidents shortly after their people depart.

However, it’s also possible your dog was never as reliably house trained as you were told. Also, dogs can be house trained to one place (their own home for example), but if they are rehomed may not be so dependable there. Some low level anxiety (associated with being rehomed) might contribute.

If your dog has separation issues, there’s an entire chapter that addresses this problem in “Decoding Your Dog.” Also, enlist help from your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist (dacvb.org), a veterinarian with a special interest in behavior (avsabonline.org) or a certified dog behavior consultant (iaabc.org).

If the dog requires a house-training touch up, training her to a crate might be helpful, and similarly there’s information in “Decoding Your Dog” about how to do that.


(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can’t answer all of them individually, he’ll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve’s website is www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated “Steve Dale’s Pet World” and “The Pet Minute.” He’s also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)
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