Dr. Walt's happy tails: January 2002

By: Dr. Walt Ingwersen

Author: Canadian Living


Dr. Walt's happy tails: January 2002

By: Dr. Walt Ingwersen

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Dear Dr. Walt: My husband and I have a 16-month-old, female yellow lab; she is a wonderful addition to our family! My husband gives her lots of attention. When he sits on the sofa to watch TV or read the newspaper, she starts to bark at him. We think she simply wants attention. Are we on the right track or is there something else going on here?

Hi Doc: I have a 6 -year-old golden retriever named Ginger. I love her dearly but she has one habit I just can't get her to stop – when we are getting organized for our daily walk, she starts to bark and won't stop until we are out the door. I have her do a lay down while I get my shoes and the moment my back is turned, she barks. I put my shoes on facing her and as soon as I reach for my coat, her leash, etc., she barks. I have tried changing the time of day that I walk her but she still seems to know. Yesterday, while she was out in the backyard, I got myself organized without her present but as soon as she walked in the door, she started to bark. There was no evidence of my intentions to take her out but she knew. Can she read my mind and why can't I get her to stop being so excited about the joy of our walk?

Dear Dr. Walt: We have a 2-year-old, mini long-haired dachshund and she barks at anything that moves, especially at night when she goes out to go to the bathroom. Our house backs onto a park and although the yard is fenced, Gabby hears noises and responds by barking and won't stop! I've tried spraying her with water and that works sometimes. I don't like the idea of an electric training collar as I feel they are cruel. I would appreciate any suggestions that you may have.

Ah, let the games between pets and their owners begin! Questions and/or concerns about the behaviour of our pets is one of the most common topics I am asked about and stems from our desire to better understand their behaviour so that we can better respond to our pet's needs.

Unfortunately, we don't have a common language to make this task easy and, although we try our best to emulate Dr. Doolittle, without a clear understanding, we are left to make assumptions and respond accordingly. While we often believe our pets are ‘psychic' or have greater powers of understanding than we do, the reality is that much of their behaviour is simply a learned response to a set of cues that has been trained and reinforced by us over time.

The above questions highlight this, yet the outcome can become frustrating for the pet owner, especially when the behaviour becomes disruptive or destructive. The solution is retraining, although this is easier said than done as it requires us to adjust our routines and refocus on rewarding positive behaviour rather than responding to unwanted behaviour.

When annoyed by our pet's behaviour, we often react in an attempt to stop it yet this is interpreted by our pets as social interaction and therefore inadvertently rewards the behaviour. So, as a rule of thumb, ignore unwanted and reward desired behaviour.

For the intial two questions above, this will be a critical component of altering both dogs' barking behaviour. Once they recognized that their barking does not elicit the same response from the owner that it has in the past, the desire to bark will become less and eventually abate. However, a word of warning, this approach often results in the behaviour becoming worse for a short while. But take heart and stick to your guns; it will get better!

This also underscores the importance of being cautious of how we train our pets to respond to our ‘body language' clues. Whereas the bark and run to the door in response to an anticipated walk may be acceptable, unless it is checked it may lead to more rambuncous behaviour that becomes unacceptable to you or to another member of the household, over time. Some other suggestions specific to the questions posed above are as follows:

Evaluate your own behaviour patterns and try to eliminate promoters of the undesired behaviour. For instance, avoid getting your pet excited by asking if they want to go for a walk or making a ‘production' out of the lead up to the anticipated event. Do not inadvertently train barking by asking them to and then rewarding them for speaking – be careful what you wish for!

Ginger's owner is on the right track by trying to change the routine to ‘scramble' the clues as to what is to come next. If Ginger does not bark when outside and the yard is fenced, get yourself ready for the walk and then go out to join Ginger rather that having Ginger come in to watch you prepare. Alternatively, go through the process of getting ready but then don't go. Reinforce the sit or down-stay and reward quiet behaviour with a treat or patting. Train the quiet behaviour to a command so that you can better communicate your expectations to Ginger. Do this at times separate from the walk.

Consider occupying their mouth so that they can't bark. Retrievers are often eager to carry something in their mouths. Find a suitable toy, ball, Frisbee, or stick that, if held in the mouth, precludes the ability to bark.

Gabby's barking may be due to a different set of initiating circumstances and may be more difficult to retrain. Often dogs will bark at people or pets passing by their yard or ‘domain' as a means of communicating their ‘ownership' and providing a warning for others not to enter. This is consistently rewarded because most that are passing by will do just that and provide reinforcement that this behaviour results in the desired outcome.Consider going out with Gabby and reward/train quiet behaviour. Avoid busy times in your neighbourhood that may promote her barking.

Alternatively, anti-bark collars can be effective if used properly and humanely – there are a variety available, many of which don't use electricity. My favourite is the Aboistop collar that releases a citronella spray in response to barking that dissuades this behaviour. As Gabby already responds to squirts of water, you may find this collar (available through your veterinarian or specialty pet stores) particularly helpful. Also, another point to remember when considering an anti-bark collar – make sure that it responds to vibrations within the wearer's voice box rather than to the noise of barking as the former will be specific to the wearer's behaviour while the latter may result in the collar being activated by another dog's barking and therefore counterproductive to the training process.

Wishing you all the best of luck and I would love to hear how things work out!

Winter Hazards To Be Cautious Of

In previous columns, I have warned of potential hazards that accompany specific times of family celebration and these have included both Halloween and Christmas. In this column, I would like to quickly provide some safety warnings common to all pets during the colder months of winter:

1. During the colder months, a routine automotive practice is to use ethylene glycol or antifreeze in your car's radiator or for windshield washer fluid. Antifreeze is extremely toxic to animals, often resulting in kidney failure and death if ingested. Of particular concern is that pets seem to find antifreeze tasty and only a small amount is required to cause irreparable harm so ensure that pets do not have any access to these products by storing them well and carefully disposing of any that are unwanted.

2. Outdoor cats will often look for a warm spot to while away the hours. During the winter months, they may climb under the hood of a car to escape the chill outdoors and to enjoy the heat from a warm engine block after the car has been turned off. However, they may be caught napping and unawares when the car is restarted and subsequently injured by the moving parts of the engine. Therefore, before starting your vehicle, knock on the hood or honk the horn to provide any hidden visitors with ample warning.

3. Heed warnings about cold spells and remember they apply to both us and our pets. Ensure that they are not at risk for exposure or hypothermia by making bathroom breaks short or, if necessary or appropriate, providing them with protective and warm clothing when they are enjoying the outdoors.

4. Finally, for outdoor dogs, please realize that their nutritional requirements are a lot higher and demand special attention during the cold months. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the most appropriate diet to use. Shelter is also extremely important and best satisfied with an insulated doghouse with the entrance facing away from the prevailing wind and just large enough for your dog to lie down comfortably. Also, ensure that any water left out for your pet is checked regularly as it may freeze.

Happy ‘tails' for all in the New Year!

About Dr. Walt Ingwersen
Dr. Walt Ingwersen is Chief Veterinary Officer at PetCare Insurance Brokers Ltd. He is a 1982 graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College. Board certified in Internal Medicine, he has the distinction of being the first Canadian editor of the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, a position he currently holds.

Involved in many aspects of the national and international veterinary community, "Dr. Walt" is the recipient of the President's Award for outstanding contribution to the veterinary profession awarded by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). He is also Chief Veterinary Officer and Chairman of the Veterinary Advisory Board at PetCare Insurance Brokers Ltd. – Canada's leading provider of insurance for dogs and cats.

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Dr. Walt's happy tails: January 2002