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USA Dog Behavior Blog

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.

Should you give your dog a command only one time?

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

The question as to whether or not you should repeat a command to a dog is one I am asked all of the time. Put a group of dog trainers together and ask them this question and you won’t get 100% agreement.

For this article I will use the word “command”, but dog behavior consultants and specialists almost exclusively use the word “cue” for a number of reasons.

"…experienced and competent dog trainers know there are times when you don’t repeat a command, and times when you should."

Positive dog trainers (i.e., those who avoid punishing dogs and use positive reinforcement such as treats, play and affection to train) tend to feel that a repeated command is not the end of the world. Those dog trainers who use aversive methods (e.g., choke collars, prong collars, shock collars, leash “corrections”) lean toward the you-only-say-it-once rule.

For the record, the most well-known and respected dog behaviorist in the world, Dr. Ian Dunbar, is completely okay with repeating commands multiple times in some situations.

After working with thousands of dogs and dog owners, I can tell you that the reality lies somewhere in-between the two extremes of you-say-it-only-once and repeating-commands-is-okay schools of thought. Experienced and competent dog trainers know there are times when you don’t repeat a command, and times when you should. There is no monolithic rule.

When should you repeat and when should you not? Below is a checklist that will help you train your dog in a way that will increase human-dog communication and therefore reduce repeated commands.

If dogs mess up a command, at a minimum, don’t reward them for the miscommunication between dog and human.  Withhold the reward and start over again.

Don’t use commands at all until dogs have some idea what you are asking them to do. If you start saying “sit” before dogs have any idea what you are trying to teach, they might think “sit” means to just look at you. And by the way, your dog doesn’t understand what “sit” means before you lure or shape that behavior first.

When dogs are first learning a command, it is essential that they look at you. If your dog is making eye contact with you, the probability of compliance skyrockets.

When first teaching your dog a command, be sure to control distractions. Distracted dogs are much harder to teach new commands. Dog training experts like to say there are three primary variables involved in training dogs: distance, distraction and duration. How far can the handler be from the dog and still get compliance? Will the dog comply with the command when in a highly distracting environment? Finally, how long will the dog comply with the command (e.g., stay)?

When dogs are learning they need a few seconds sometimes in order to figure out what you’re trying to teach them. By just waiting two to three seconds (literally) after giving a command, the chance of compliance will increase dramatically. Say it once, take a breath and give the dog a chance to comply.

Using a pleasant voice with dogs can dramatically increase compliance. Dogs like higher pitched commands that inflect up at the end of the word. Would you want to work with someone who yelled commands at you?

Don’t be afraid to give dogs a reward each and every time they comply with a command when they are first learning something. You can always fade out the rewards over time. Humans work for rewards and so do our dogs. How many more times would you show up at work if they stopped your paycheck?

Use these ideas to create better communication between your dog and you during training. This will reduce the need for repeated cues and make training more fun for both of you.