These reader questions about behavior were answered by Dr. John Ciribassi, a veterinary behaviorist and 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). This book is the first ever authored by members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
Q: Our cat has started relieving himself on top of the litter box cover. What can we do? – V.C., Las Vegas, Nev.
A: Removing the cover might solve the problem, unless your cat: 1) feels he needs the view, 2) feels nervous about being tucked inside the covered box, 3) is worried about being ambushed by another cat, or 4) children lingering near the litter box are causing a ruckus and making him feel insecure.
Q: Our 3-year-old Schipperke is very smart and knows many tricks. At the other extreme, she dislikes thunderstorms, fireworks and the sound of the vacuum cleaner, all of which make her shake uncontrollably. She won’t eat treats or even go potty if it’s storming, or for hours after fireworks. How can we help her? – D.O., Forest Lake, Minn.
A: Since your pup enjoys tricks, she might be a good candidate for what’s called response substitution. Before she gets worried about an oncoming storm, engage her with games. Also, give her something safe to chew on. For example, you could stuff low-fat peanut butter or low-fat cream cheese in a sterilized bone (available wherever pet products are sold).
A product like Anxitane (containing L-Theanine) and/or Adaptil (a copy of a calming pheromone), could tone down your pup’s anxiety so she can ride out storms in a comfortable place, such as a dog bed in a closet or cozy haven in a corner of the basement. Since your dog seems generally anxious, ask your veterinarian about a Royal Canin prescription diet called CALM.
The basement (if you have one) might be the perfect place for your dog during storms. With music pumped up and window blinds closed, a basement is one of the few rooms in a home where you can easily conceal changing weather.
Ciribassi notes that some dogs become downright panicked, and an anti-anxiety drug may be the most humane response for a pet so profoundly bothered by loud noises.
“These are not sedatives,” he explains. “In fact, a sedative isn’t a good idea; now you have a drowsy dog who’s still panicked.”
The good news about fireworks (or vacuuming!) is that you know exactly when they’ll take place and can make plans to soothe your dog. Thunderstorms are more of a challenge.
You might seek help from a veterinary behaviorist (www.dacvb.org) or a veterinarian with a special interest in behavior (www.avsabonline.org). There’s an entire chapter on thunderstorm anxiety in “Decoding Your Dog.”
If another member of the household is willing to help, he/she could engage the dog with tricks in one part of the house while you vacuum in another.
“Or, when the vacuum appears, your Schipperke gets to go for a walk,” suggests Ciribassi.
Q: What do you do about a dog who bites when he’s touched a certain way? This dog is mostly very loving. – M.A.D., Buffalo
A: “Don’t touch him that certain way,” says Ciribassi. “I’m unsure where it is you touch him that triggers the response, but there may be a medical explanation which has gone undetected until now. The possibilities (range from) dental disease to arthritis – anything really.”
Once medical possibilities are ruled out, you could ask a professional how to desensitize and condition the dog to be touched.
“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,” Ciribassi suggests. “When the dog doesn’t seem to care, actually touch (the ear) a bit more, but just for one second and offer a treat simultaneously. Gradually touch 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 in which timing is important, so having a qualified trainer show you is ideal.”