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USA Dog Behavior Blog

This Dog Owner’s Comments Raise All Kinds of Red Flags

© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

I recently received the following email from a lady asking about my dog behavior consultant services.

“I have an energetic 1 year-old male Mini Australian shepherd. Overall he is an okay puppy, but he is aggressive toward other dogs. He is aggressive toward me only when he knows he is in trouble. He has bitten me on a few occasions leaving marks. He is VERY friendly toward others including strangers, but he is extremely stubborn and doesn't want to listen. He listens only when he wants.”

“…her dog is now using aggression in an attempt to keep her away from him.“

If you are a long-time dog owner, you most likely already see the red flags in her email. Let me briefly break down my concerns sentence by sentence.

“I have an energetic 1 year-old male Mini Australian shepherd. Overall he is an okay puppy, but he is aggressive toward other dogs.”

Her first sentence is the least concerning to me. Her dog has dog-fear-aggression which is caused by his fear of unfamiliar dogs and his desire to keep them a safe distance away from him by using aggression. This is a common behavior problem in pet dogs that can be addressed with proper behavior treatment.

The first red flag raises its head with this statement, “Overall he is an okay puppy…” No one I know who truly cares for their dog would ever describe their dog as an “okay puppy”.  Frankly, it seems somewhat cold to me.

“He is aggressive toward me only when he knows he is in trouble. He has bitten me on a few occasions leaving marks. He is VERY friendly toward others including strangers…”

The dog owner is saying so much with these particular words.

Her dog does not know “he is in trouble”. However, her dog does know that the owner is acting really scary and threatening around him and he is showing stress behaviors because he doesn’t understand whatsoever why she is acting like this. Dogs don’t show guilt; they show fear – and in this case – fear of the owner.

“He has bitten me on a few occasions leaving marks.” Now things are becoming very apparent, especially when she follows with, “He is VERY friendly toward others including strangers…” The owner is probably punishing the dog inappropriately for his misdeeds and her dog is now using aggression in an attempt to keep her away from him. The fact that her dog is fine with everyone else should be an important indicator to the owner that her relationship and actions toward her dog are improper and the cause of these problems.

“…but he is extremely stubborn and doesn't want to listen. He listens only when he wants.”

Allow me to translate what is happening with her dog in her last statement. She has not properly trained her dog in the things she wants her dog to know. At one year of age her dog still thinks like a puppy to a great extent. Dogs don’t come into this world or to a new home knowing all the household rules – they have to be trained (for more on this see 100 Reasons Why You Need to Give Your Dog More Respect). The occasional compliance she is seeing from him is for the things he does understand. Her poor relationship with the dog and the fear he feels around her certainly don’t help any of this.

I am not being judgmental here; I’ve learned that 95% of dog owner mistakes with their dogs are because they just aren’t informed about proper and better options. Most dog owners are not intentionally hurting their dogs when they make mistakes like this.  I believe that is the case with this dog owner too.

If you are having problems like this with your dog or you know someone who is, seek the services of an experienced and certified full-time dog behaviorist for help to objectively discern the real issues and get proper guidance.

Dogs Can Have ADHD. Here’s My Latest Case.

Australian Shepherd ADHD Hyperkinesis.jpg

© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC 

I first saw “Knickers” about two years ago. She is an Australian Shepherd and was 1.5 years old at that time. She had been in three homes before the current adopters, Joseph and Gail, had brought her home.

Joseph and Gail told me at our first visit that Knickers was “very energetic, restless and never stopped moving.” After watching her for an entire session, they were absolutely not exaggerating. Knickers couldn’t stop moving and I could see why she was now in her fourth home.

While Knickers seemed to be on the extreme end of high-energy, I was not particularly alarmed; I see dogs with boundless levels of energy all the time. I prescribed a regimen of techniques to bleed off some of Knickers’ enthusiasm, get her to focus on the new owners and learn some impulse control.

After working with the owners over several months it was obvious that we were “barking up the wrong tree” (pun intended). We were getting nowhere with Knickers. Something else was going on.

I considered that possibly Knickers had generalized anxiety issues and we tried some medications and exercises that address anxiety in dogs. We observed only a marginal improvement at best.

Although rare in dogs, I had to finally consider that Knickers might be one of the rare cases of hyperkinesis in canines – known as ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) in humans. I’ve only seen a handful of legitimate cases of hyperkinesis in dogs. This looked like it might be one of them.

A common treatment in humans and dogs for ADHD is Ritalin or Adderall. Both of these medications are actually central nervous system stimulants. Humans and dogs that actually have ADHD have what is called a paradoxical reaction to these drugs. This means these medications act in reverse and have a calming effect on these patients. This paradoxical reaction can make it easy to diagnose ADHD in humans and dogs; if their hyperactivity and lack of attention get better with the medication, they have ADHD.

We tried these medications with Knickers with no positive results. I was not giving up on this diagnosis because, unlike humans, only about 20% of dogs with hyperkinesis respond to these medications.

I wanted to try one more medication. We tried a medication that was originally created in the 1950s for psychiatric patients experiencing psychosis. This was a bit of a long shot, but we were running out of options.

And it worked! It was such an incredible feeling to see a dog that never stopped moving and had virtually no ability to focus to rather suddenly turn into a dog that could calm herself and focus. I’ve only had a small number of these cases, but it is very rewarding once the issue is properly addressed.

If your dog has very high energy and can’t seem to focus, he or she has only about a .5% (1 in 200) chance of the cause being hyperkinesis. In almost every case it’s a result of many other factors that are usually fairly easily addressed by a dog behavior consultant or a dog trainer.

Can dogs be taught to get along with cats?

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© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

In one form or another, I am frequently asked some version of this question, “My dog and cat do not get along; can this be fixed?” Just like with so many issues involving animal behavior, the answer can be thorny.

Let me explain some basics about dog-cat interactions.

In most cases, a particular dog will get along with cats or won’t. A dog will do well with all cats or won’t do well with any cats. When dogs are offered for adoption they are frequently “cat tested”. If a dog is tested with one cat and passes, he or she will most likely do well with all cats.

"Mr. Kitty may help supervise the dog’s behavior modification program, but he will most certainly not be interested in joining in."

These “cat tests” are actually fairly simple. The cat is crated near the dog that is being evaluated and the dog’s level of interest is monitored. Dogs that are going to have problems with cats typically tend to obsess around the cat’s crate and won’t leave kitty alone. A dog that is likely not going to have problems with cats will investigate the crate momentarily and move on to more interesting things.

If dogs don’t do well around cats it’s normally because of one of two reasons. If they want to have kitty for lunch, it’s called prey behavior. Because of domestication, dogs that are prey aggressive toward cats rarely actually seek them out as food. However, they will initiate the first parts of prey behavior which can include seriously injuring, or even killing, a cat.

The other reason that dogs can do poorly around cats is if they are overly aroused by cats and want to play too hard. Some dogs see cats as play objects and don’t know when or how to throttle back. Things start as play and can escalate into aggression and conflict.

I’m always a little nervous about recommending  that any dog (even one that has passed the “cat test”) live in a home that has a declawed cat. Declawing is a double-edged sword for cats. First, they aren’t able to adequately defend themselves. Sometimes if a cat swipes those claws across the muzzle of a dog once or twice, there are no further problems with doggie bothering the cat. Front and back claws also allow the cat to escape from the dog. Cats are phenomenal climbers and jumpers (when they have all of their claws) and find safety in high horizontal surfaces in a home.

When it comes to addressing a dog and cat living peacefully together, we know that we’re going to have to work with the dog. Mr. Kitty may help supervise the dog’s behavior modification program, but he will most certainly not be interested in joining in. In short, this is going to be remedied by working with the dog.

We can address the prey drive and over arousal issues that a dog may have toward a cat by desensitizing and counterconditioning the dog to the cat. Working with a qualified behaviorist, the owner will systematically help the dog essentially become bored with the cat. This can take quite a lot of time and patience for the owner to accomplish.

The number one concern with desensitizing and counterconditioning a dog to a cat is that there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees that it will work and there are also no guarantees that it will last for any specific period of time. Dogs may do well with a cat for an extended period of time and then rather suddenly begin to see the cat as a prey or play item again.

Are there cats and dogs that get along famously? Yes! It is possible.  But if you have a dog and cat that aren’t doing well together, seek the help of a professional dog behavior specialist and always keep an eye on the situation even if behavior modification appears successful. Best bet is to first “cat test” any dog you bring into your home or before bringing a cat into a home that already has a dog. If the test is positive (i.e., fail) then you might want to consider a different pairing of animals.