Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Alternative Options for Your Pet's Anxiety

 Obviously, I see a lot of anxious pets every day. Some of those animals will be able to learn alternative behaviors that reduce their anxiety without the need for anything more than due diligence on the part of their owners, and behavioral modification techniques they learn from me.  It's wonderful when a pet can go from being anxious to content with just a few changes to their environment, routine, etc.  For many animals, however, behavioral modification is simply not enough; they are profoundly anxious and their anxiety is affecting their quality of life and that of their owners as well.  These pets are going to need something more.  

Many of my clients resist any kind of therapeutic intervention.  They want their pets to "get better without drugs."  While I can certainly understand not wanting to give your pet unnecessary medications, anti-anxiety medications are most certainly not frivolous/unnecessary or a crutch.  I've had several clients tell me that using anti-anxiety medications for their pet would be viewed by their friends and family as "ridiculous or indulgent" and a "waste of time."  This is truly unfortunate as such misguided and outdated notions keep pets (and their owners!) from living their best lives. But how do you know if your pet needs medication?

Your first stop should always be your veterinarian.  They need to understand what you are facing with your pet.  Is your pet's anxiety situational (like my daughter's smooth collie, Westley, who is afraid of garbage trucks and experiences anxiety on garbage day) or is it more generalized (like my client's cat who has been anxious every day since her twins were born)? Are there more good days than bad?  Does your pet enjoy the things that they should be enjoying (e.g. meals, exercise, play time, etc.) or is their anxiety keeping them from doing so? Your veterinarian will ask you all of these questions and more during your appointment.  They will likely suggest doing blood work as well if they are going to recommend starting a course of anti-anxiety medication.  Routine blood work and regular check ups are a necessary part of treating your pet's anxiety.  Any drug you start for your pet must be  monitored, whether that drug is for heart disease or for anxiety.

Some of my clients want to jump right in and start traditional anti-anxiety medications for their pets, and this is great.  For a lot of them, they've had their own anxiety to deal with over the years and found great relief in traditional forms of anti-anxiety medication.  This isn't true for everyone, however, and I've certainly had a lot of clients over the years who want to delay the use of any type of medication as long as possible.  For these clients, exploring alternative therapies is the place to start. Let's look at a few alternative, or holistic solutions for anxious pets.

Anti-Anxiety Wraps:  Whether a do-it-yourself wrap made from an Ace bandage or old t-shirt, or one of the vests made by companies like ThunderShirt, anxiety wraps are founded on the same principle, which is that constant, steady pressure applied to your dog's torso (compression) has a calming effect, much as swaddling a baby or hugging a person when they are upset does.  Obviously, not every infant likes being swaddled (my daughter, Jessica, sure didn't!), nor does every human in distress want to be hugged.  By the same token, not every anxious dog will enjoy nor benefit from wearing an anti-anxiety wrap.  For some dogs, being wrapped tightly just makes them more anxious.  It is also true that such wraps are the most beneficial to dogs whose anxiety is situational and predictable.  Thus, if your dog gets anxious when your gardener mows the lawn every week, then an anti-anxiety wrap might work for your dog; that's a specific, predictable situation in which to try something like this.  If, however, your dog is anxious with a lot of noises, including everyday noises that are hard to predict like icemakers, trucks backing up, etc., then an anti-anxiety wrap will be less effective for your dog.  By design, these wraps are not made to be worn all the time, making them better for cases of situational anxiety, rather than generalized anxiety. 

DAP and Feliway:  Both DAP, Dog Appeasing Pheromones, and Feliway, work on the same principle which is that these soothing pheromones released in the dog or cat's environment will lead to a feeling of calm and a reduction of stress and anxiety. DAP is a synthetic chemical scent that mimics the smells dogs are supposed to associate with being a puppy cared for by their mother.  Feliway mimics the pheromones released by female cats to soothe their kittens.  Thus, both products are based on the notion that "mom smells" are soothing and will calm anxious animals.  Obviously, this won't work for every anxious animal, particularly those with profound anxiety, and are thus often used in conjunction with other alternative solutions or in combination with more traditional anti-anxiety medications.  DAP and Feliway come in plug-in diffusers or sprays and DAP also comes in a collar for dogs to wear.

Melatonin:  I've had many clients over the years who've used Melatonin themselves to help them sleep.  Melatonin can also be used in dogs and cats for sleep-related issues, but may have broader application for dogs with anxiety, manifesting as restlessness or reactivity.  Melatonin can be sedating and is a hormonal supplement which mimics a naturally occurring hormone in our bodies and the bodies of our pets, thus you will want to check with your veterinarian before giving Melatonin to your pets.  They can advise you on whether it is safe for your specific pet and if so, what dosage to begin with.

Cholodin:  Cholodin is a dietary supplement that contains choline (an essential nutrient found in foods and that aids in metabolism), amino acids, vitamins, and minerals and can be helpful for geriatric dogs and cats.  Giving Cholodin to older pets can help with age-related issues such as lethargy, changes to appetite, changes to their sleep/wake cycle, and decline in their mental acuity. Cholodin is often suggested as the place to start with older dogs suffering from Canine Cognitive Dysfunction before beginning more traditional pharmaceutical options.  

CBD: CBD is the abbreviation for cannabinoids.  It isn't just humans that have receptors in their brain for these naturally occurring compounds found in cannabis plants. There are over 100 recognized cannabinoids that have been derived from cannabis plants and known to have varying medicinal properties and effects for particular mammals. While CBD will not be effective for every anxious dog or cat, it can certainly be helpful to many and worth trying. Choose a company whose products have undergone research and testing, with consistent sourcing, guaranteeing that the product you purchased for your pet today will be the same quality as the product you bought two months ago. Do keep in mind that the dosage that will/may work for your pet varies, with some pets requiring more or less than others for the desired effects.  For example, cats generally take a higher dosage than dogs (almost twice the amount!) and that's because they don't have as many cannabinoid receptors as dogs do. As with melatonin, you will want to check with your veterinarian first before giving CBD just to make sure it doesn't interact with any other medications your pet may be taking or any underlying medical conditions they may have.

This is just an overview of some of the alternative therapies available to our pets.  There are, quite frankly, hundreds of different products on the market touted as aiding in anxiety reduction for cats and dogs.  I've found, however, that most of these do absolutely nothing in terms of treating anxiety. At best they aren't harmful, just a potential waste of money, at worst they are harmful in that pet owners continue to use them when they are having no helpful effects on their pet's behavior.  Starting with an alternative option like those listed above is a good place to start, but your pet may still end up needing a more traditional anti-anxiety medication, and that's okay too.  You are investing in their health and happiness as well as your own.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Westley is a pretty happy-go-lucky dog most of the time. He does, however, suffer from situational anxiety.  He hates garbage day!  He's gotten better with behavioral modification and with both alternative solutions, as well as traditional drug therapy options. He is a work in progress!

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Let's Get the Party Started!

With a lift on some of the restrictions for social gatherings, people are starting to have parties both in their homes and in their backyards. I've gotten two calls this week from clients whose dogs were "party-poopers" during last weekend's festivities!  One client indicated that her dog was obnoxiously trolling guests for food, jumping up on people and tables, and sniffing crotches!  The other client's dog was totally freaked out about having strangers in the yard and proceeded to spend the entire party dodging people trying to pet her and barking at anyone who came within 10 feet of her.  The really unfortunate thing was that this dog followed a guest into the house and nipped the woman on the rear end as she was headed to the powder room during the party.  None of this is good; we certainly don't want our dogs overly involved with our guests, pushing/shoving for treats and attention, nor do we want our dogs so overcome with anxiety that they feel compelled to nip a guest.  

As you might have already guessed, both of these dogs were "pandemic puppies," acquired during last year's shutdown and now experiencing "normal life" post-pandemic, for the first time.  They have very little experience with new people, and have certainly never seen lots of new people on their home turf.  While one dog saw this as an opportunity to sneak food and behave inappropriately, the other became anxious enough to bark on and off for 4 hours and ultimately nip a guest. Even dogs with appropriate social experiences pre-pandemic may find large social gatherings on their home turf somewhat challenging given that they've not been expected to attend one in well over a year!

So, what can you do to increase your odds of success with social gatherings in/at your home?  First off, be honest with yourself about who your dog is. If your dog is shy to begin with, hyper-vigilant in public settings, uncomfortable with strangers petting her, overly territorial in your yard, etc., then it's a better idea to plan to have your dog confined to a crate, a safe room, etc. before the party starts.  This isn't punishment, but prevention.  They will be happier in that crate or safe room where they don't have to worry about people they don't know interacting with them.  Make sure you tell your guests to leave the dog in the crate/room alone!  Even well-meaning dog lovers might think it's okay to open that safe room door or stick their fingers through the crate, so letting folks know your dog is uncomfortable with party situations and is confined for their safety and comfort is key.  And if you are going to have houseguests for several days it might be in your dog's best interest to board with a trusted friend or family member to insure that nothing unexpected occurs while you have guests overnight in your home. Remember, you will want to focus on your guests and having to constantly watch and supervise your dog isn't going to be easy if you're also trying to be a good host.

If your dog loves meeting new people BUT they don't always do that in the best way, you will want to work with them before, as well as, during your social gathering.  Put them on leash and have them practice friendly, unobtrusive greetings.  Stand on the leash so that they can't jump up, keep them tethered to you with the leash so that they can't pursue people, sniffing crotches, for example.  Have them lay near you while people are eating, or go ahead and confine them while there is food around.  You can practice their good table manners before your guests even arrive by taking your dog near the food tables etc., and teaching them that staying off those tables and away from the food is more rewarding than being there.  Direct them away saying "OFF" and reward them with treats for looking and moving away from the food.  Work with your dog until they get to the point where as they approach a table or food you can say "OFF" and they move away, looking to you for their reward.  If you have time, work on dropping food/spilling food on the floor and telling your dog to "LEAVE IT" and rewarding them with high value treats when they do so.  That way, you don't have to worry about your dog getting something they shouldn't have that might fall off the serving table or someone's plate.

Having realistic expectations for how social gatherings will go is important, but so is being prepared.  Don't just assume your dog will be fine if you've never put them in that situation before. Practice does make perfect.  Let your guests know that you are working with your dog on their greeting behavior, behavior around people eating, etc.  Most of your friends are likely dog lovers as well who are more than happy to help you and your dog be successful.  Because, frankly, if you are successful, you will likely host more parties in the future and who doesn't like a good social gathering that we don't have to plan and execute ourselves!

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.


The collies love a good party.  As you can see, they were good about not surfing the cake table at my son's high school graduation party a couple of years ago.  Ozzie is actually next to me while I'm taking this picture, and you can see Desi nearby, but not in the way.  These positions guaranteed that they'd be rewarded with dog appropriate treats during the party!

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Puppy Walks

"Some of our greatest treasures we place in museums, others we take for a walk." Roger Caras

I've always loved that quote and I keep it on my bulletin board above my desk as a reminder of how nice it is to leave my office and walk with my dogs. While it would seem that we can all agree that our dogs need to go for walks, how long those walks should be, how far our dogs should walk, and what they should be doing on those walks does seem to vary between dog owners.  I know I've talked about walking adolescent and adult dogs several times before, so this time around, I'd like to focus on puppy walks.

Many new puppy owners are afraid to walk their pups in public because they've been told that they shouldn't until their puppy's vaccine series is completed.  While it's true that you shouldn't be walking your minimally vaccinated puppy in a busy park or on sidewalks frequented for toileting purposes by other dogs, this does not mean you need to keep your puppy cooped up inside the house!  While you can certainly practice loose leash walking in your house, it is a skill that does need to be practiced outdoors, with distractions, for best results. Walking your puppy around your own yard or property will work just fine to get your puppy outdoors and on a leash.  If you can add in some new people (friends or neighbors works just fine) and some friendly, well-behaved, vaccinated dogs of other ages to your yard for these walking practice sessions, all the better. 

Another big mistake puppy owners make is walking their puppies too far or for too long. A good rule of thumb is 5 minutes of walking on leash per month of age, twice daily.  Thus, an 8 week old puppy can be walked twice daily for 10 minutes per walk. I find that most of the new puppy owners I meet are walking their puppies 1-3 miles each walk for a minimum of an hour walk each time!  No wonder their puppies are sleep deprived, mouthy, and over threshold!  These puppies are being over-exercised! We all know that too little exercise is a bad thing, but so is too much. Even if your puppy appears to want to walk further or for a longer duration than outlined above, don't let them.  Keeping those walks short and sweet also ensures that you aren't stressing your puppies bones and joints which could lead to injury.

Leave yourself and your puppy enough time to, well, just be a puppy. Puppies like to sniff and explore on their walks, but they also like to stop all the time to assess their surroundings.  Some puppies, quite literally, take 5 steps and then sit down for a few minutes to assess their surroundings, before getting up, walking 5 more steps, and then stopping again. I realize this can be quite frustrating for the human on the end of the leash, but this walk isn't about you!  Puppy walks are about social experiences, sniffing, exploring, and assessing.  If you drag your puppy along, you'll make them hate their walks and you keep them from fully assessing and absorbing their surroundings which increases their comfort and confidence while on leash.

Do work on good behavior while on leash right from the get-go.  Don't allow your puppy to jump up on people, even if those well-meaning folks say that they don't mind. YOU mind!  Stand on your puppy's leash to prevent jumping up.  Use treats to redirect your puppy away from sniffing or picking up things they shouldn't.  Work on "leave it" and redirecting to the treats or toy you've brought with you for this purpose.  If they've already picked something up that they shouldn't, have your treats ready to do a trade while saying "drop it." 

Make the focus of these short outings with your puppy be about sniffing and exploring while you maintain a loose leash.  This is actually harder than it sounds given that puppies race off, then slam on their brakes for those assessments!  Do your best to keep the leash loose, work on keeping your puppy walking on the inside of your body, away from street traffic, and allow sniffing. Don't worry so much about the "perfect heel;" worry instead about the quality of your puppy's exploration time away from home.

Finally, don't neglect mental exercise for your puppy!  When your puppy isn't napping, out for a 10 minute walk, eating, or training, they should be doing some independent activity that keeps them busy.  Interactive toys such as those from the Kong company, Busy Buddy, Starmark, and Outward Hound are designed to challenge dogs of all ages, rewarding them with treats/kibble for their efforts.  Each of these manufacturers has a rating system for their interactive toys, allowing you to choose the ones that will work for the age of your dog.  For puppies, begin with the easier interactive toys, like a basic Kong, for example.  As they have success and gain confidence, you can work up to the harder puzzle toys.  A good balance between physical and mental exercise is the key for us all, including our puppies.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

I love this picture of my daughter, Jessica, walking with 8 week old Ozzie on the sidewalk in front of our house.  Look at his confident little stride and that nice loose leash!  Bravo Jess and Ozzie!

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Housetraining an Adult Dog!

I've had four clients this week who are having trouble with their recently adopted adult dogs. Not big problems like aggression or separation anxiety, but a nagging problem nonetheless. You see, all four clients are dealing with adult dogs who are not housetrained. Each of these dogs is very different: one, a Maltese, is a former show dog.  Another is a former street dog from Mexico. The third dog is a Collie who spent his first year of life living in an outdoor kennel and the last dog is a shy little Chihuahua mix from a local shelter.  While all four dogs are urinating in the house, they are doing so for different reasons.

Let's start with the former show dog.  He's an intact male and came to a home with an intact female dog and an older neutered male dog. This little guy is marking in my client's house; he urinates on doorways, furniture corners, and even the other male dog! The owner will be neutering this dog soon, but has to wait a few weeks before doing so.  His marking behavior is definitely hormonally influenced, so neutering him will help, but it won't fix the learned behavior of marking.  I suggested that she put a belly band on the dog to save her house from further marking until the dog can be neutered.  Once neutered, she will be confining him and only letting him out supervised and with a belly band on until such a time as the hormones dissipate and his desire to mark decreases.  She may have to leave a belly band on him long term anytime she can't supervise him, particularly when her female dog comes into heat.  

The street dog from Mexico and the Collie who lived outdoors in a kennel are both accustomed to toileting whenever and wherever they please.  Even though both are adult dogs, they must be taught how to live inside, just like you would with a new puppy.  These two dogs need to be confined whenever they can't be watched (both owners have set up crates in their kitchens) and tethered to their humans when they are home (leashed to the humans' belts).  Anytime the dog pulls away from the owner, they must be taken out to their bathroom area and told to "go potty!"  This way, the dog learns that moving away from the owner results in a trip to use the bathroom. When the dog can't be watched or tethered, it must be in the crate.  Both dogs will be taken outside to toilet every 45 minutes to begin with until the owners can determine how long each dog can hold it before needing to go outside after eating, playing, waking up, etc. Both dogs will receive treats and praise for toileting outdoors where they are supposed to.  Accidents in the house will be cleaned up without any punishment involved; it's not the dog's fault that they were raised outdoors!  Accident clean ups must be done with a good enzymatic cleaner and the area blocked off so it can completely dry.  Since neither dog has a clear signal that they need to toilet, we are hanging bells on the back door of both owners' homes and ringing the bell every time the dog is taken outside.  Fingers crossed that the dogs associate the bell ringing with the door opening and learn to ring it themselves to go outside!

The little Chihuahua mix not only has a little bladder (she's 4.5 lbs!), she also submissively urinates. Accidents in the house are not an uncommon issue for the toy breed dogs to begin with, and this little dog is very shy; if you move toward her too quickly, raise your voice, or if she hears a loud noise, she will drop down and urinate.  The owners need to focus on limiting where she explores unsupervised in their house, taking her out every 30 minutes for a chance to toilet, and work on building her confidence.  She needs to be trained using a soft voice and obvious rewards; punishing this dog, or getting frustrated with her behavior, will only make the problem worse. 

While adopting an adult dog is often described as "easier" than adopting a  puppy, it is still a lot of work, particularly if the dog has issues with regard to housetraining.  This can be a very frustrating issue and one that doesn't immediately go away; it takes work and diligence on the part of the new owners to establish schedules and routines and consequences that these dogs can clearly understand in order to help them learn what is expected of them.  I fully expect that each of these dogs will succeed in their new homes.  They have wonderful owners willing to do what it takes to help them become full-fledged family members.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

My daughter really lucked out with Westley.  She adopted him at 9 months of age and he came to her crate trained and with the ability to ask to go outside by standing at the door. This means my daughter can allow him time alone and out of his crate. Which you can see that he uses to his full advantage as he's laying on her bed!