Wednesday, January 26, 2022

When Your Dog Doesn't Like to Share

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to evaluate a puppy who at the tender age of 15 weeks, had begun to resource guard. At this point, he was freezing over one of his toys and chews and would growl and run away to hide if the owners tried to take the items away.  He is perfectly fine around his food bowl, letting the owners touch him, the bowl, and the food without any issues whatsoever, so the owners were surprised to see this behavior with toys and chews.  They had reached out to me for help because they wanted to make sure this problem didn't escalate and because they have grandkids, they want to make sure this puppy continues to be safe with them as well.

Resource guarding in and of itself is not inherently a bad thing, nor unexpected.  We all have our own stuff and we would all likely take offense if someone just took those things away from us without just cause!  Dogs are no different; they have things that they, too, don't really want to share.  A dog of any age might freeze or stiffen over an object or their bowl, effectively blocking it from being taken away.  Running off with a favored item is pretty common among dogs as well.  Where dogs (and their humans) get into trouble is when the behavior moves past simply not wanting to give something up to outright aggressively defending the item.  So, some dogs move well past that stiff posture and the stare to growling, snarling, snapping, and biting as well.  Obviously, we don't want any of those things to happen, particularly when we are talking about an impressionable puppy who is regularly around kids as my clients' dog certainly is.

Our first step was to figure out what toys/treats he would guard, versus those which he would readily give up.  We discovered that there was just one toy he would guard, a flavored ball on a rope, and he would guard bully sticks and chews equally, but not his dental bones. All of his other toys (soft toys, Nylabones, squeaky toys, interactive toys like his Kong, etc.) were easy to take away from him. So beginning with the toys he didn't guard, we taught him "drop it" and traded him each item for a high value reward (rotisserie chicken).  He happily traded everything and very quickly caught on to the game.  At this point, we decided to see if he'd trade a bully stick for a large piece of chicken.  While holding onto the bully stick, I let the puppy chew on the other end, but not take it away from me.  I then brought up my other hand and offered him the large piece of chicken to let go of the bully stick.  I could see him weighing his options, but since we were both holding onto the bully stick at the same time, he gave up his end and took the chicken. Progress!  We did the same thing with the ball on the rope, and once again he resisted momentarily, but did not escalate, and gave up the favored item for the large piece of chicken.  I asked the owners not to give him any bully sticks or chews, other than his dental chews, and put the ball on a rope away.  Those items should only be given to him when they can practice the drop it and trade that we did together during our appointment.  My hope is that with repeated training sessions, this puppy will learn that having something taken away from him (even his favorite things) is a-okay and a behavior that will always result in him getting something even better.

Not all dogs are as predictable or easy as this puppy though. I've seen dogs who begin to growl and stiffen over an object simply when someone walks into the same room, and if you make eye contact with them, they will charge at you, growling and snarling, even though you made no overt move toward their coveted object.  Dogs like this simply cannot have access to objects they will guard and/or can only have them in highly controlled situations.  I've certainly known clients who only give their dogs bully sticks in their dog runs or crates where they can be safely confined until they finish eating the item.  Some dogs, however, don't consume the favored object, or the object may be a non-consumable like a toy, a pair of socks, etc. These dogs are harder to work with because they will often opportunistically search out items to guard and will behave aggressively toward anyone who tries to intervene. Dogs who opportunistically resource guard and/or who are unpredictable in what they will covet can be quite dangerous in a home with children or others who aren't capable of reading the dogs cues and body language and knowing when to back off to avoid a confrontation that could result in a bite. 

I know a lot of dog owners who've compromised with their resource guarding dogs, meaning they understand the behavior, know it's not a curable problem, but have found creative ways to make it safer, and better manage the issue.  These folks feed their dogs in crates or kennels (if the dogs guard their bowls); some feed on the ground, avoiding bowls all together; some just never give their dogs bones or chews; and there are some who can only have a few toys to play with that are well-worn and less desirable.  And I have a few clients who muzzle their dogs to keep them from picking up items and then guarding them or becoming aggressive. 

I always get asked if some dog breeds are more likely to resource guard than others, and I just don't think the answer is that simple.  Sure, there are breeds who are more prone to the problem, but I've seen resource guarding Chihuahuas, Pugs, and Cavaliers, just as often as I've seen resource guarding German Shepherds, Border Collies, and Rottweilers. ANY dog is capable of developing resource guarding aggression.  And the dogs that people often think would be most likely to resource guard (former street dogs, for example), actually don't exhibit the behavior any more than the prized pooches obtained from breeders. Resource guarding aggression is a heritable issue, however, so if you choose a puppy whose parent(s) or grandparent(s) had issues in resource guarding, then in is likely your puppy will as well.  

If you are a new puppy owner, start early with the food bowl exercises explained in almost every puppy class and training book; touch your puppy, their bowl, and their food during meals, adding food, adding treats, etc. so that they learn that meal times are happy, social occasion and good things come to puppies who share.  Work on leave it and drop it with every single toy and chew you give your puppies so that they learn that while those items are great, puppies who happily trade will get something even better.  And always have something better readily available for those puppies who do successfully trade.

Finally, some of you may have dogs who will give up anything to you, but will resource guard from other dogs in your home.  Again, this isn't necessarily a big issue unless the resource guarding is escalating into aggression.  If your dog has a toy, bone or chew, and another dog tries to take it from them, it's perfectly normal and expected that your dog may try to turn away to keep the item, eat it faster, or even growl/snap to tell the other dog to back off.  Now, if it's your puppy that has the item and your adult dog tries to take it, your puppy should show some respect and relinquish it.  Funny thing: puppies will often taken food and treats from adult dogs in their households and the adult dogs just let them do it.  It's all about relationships and learning boundaries and rules.  Unless a knockdown-dragout occurs between your dogs, let them sort out smaller issues with respect to resources on their own.  Humans often make it worse by trying to force their dogs to be "fair" with one another and share. Dogs are not children and there is no such thing as fair in their world.  While dogs who live together will often share many things, they likely will have things that they don't want to share either and that's okay.

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

These three goofballs share anything and everything, with each other, with the humans, and even with dogs they've just met.  All were taught the trade described above early on, so they always know there will be something better coming their way if they share.  

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Rainy Days & Mondays

One of my long time clients moved to Virginia a couple of years ago. She reached out on Monday to lament her decision to leave California and our more temperate weather!  Over the course of a couple of days there, they went from really cold weather with sleet, to heavy snow and a loss of power.  She was reaching out for suggestions of things to do with her dogs since they can't be walked outdoors and they are all cooped up indoors trying to stay warm and keep a positive mindset.  She has a couple of interactive toys for them, but said she is now wishing she'd bought more as they are solving these puzzles quickly.  So, whether you are stuck indoors because of the weather (or because you are quarantining due to the spread of the Omicron variant!), here are a few suggestions for occupying your pets and maintaining your sanity:

1.  Don't feed with food bowls:  Encourage your dogs and cats to forage for their meals by spreading kibble around on cat trees or perches for your feline friends and on carpeted bathmats, rugs, artificial turf, etc. for your dogs. Foraging takes more energy and brain power than eating from a bowl and most pets love the challenge. If you feed wet food, you can form the food into small balls that can be frozen, or partially frozen, and then scattered around for foraging fun.

2.  Set up an indoor obstacle course: Use chairs, tables, TV trays, etc. to set up an obstacle course for your dogs and cats.  For cats, place a yummy treat on the end of a chopstick or spoon and lure them through your course.  For dogs, you can toss a treat ahead for them to follow, or try luring them through each obstacle and rewarding until they get comfortable doing so.  Don't leave the obstacles in the same configuration every day, vary them so you keep up their interest and enthusiasm. And remember, most chairs can serve three obstacle challenges; your pet can jump over the chair, onto the chair, or crawl under the chair.  All three uses of the chair can even be done on a single pass through your makeshift agility course.

3.  Break out the boxes:  Take any empty boxes you can find, everything from cereal boxes to Amazon boxes, and create your own puzzles.  Cut varying size holes and flaps in the boxes, partially tape some boxes shut, etc. so that you can create different treat-based puzzles for them to solve.  You can put actual treats in some of the boxes and smear peanut butter in others to change up the reward your pet receives.  Don't put all the boxes on the ground, instead placing some up onto chairs, in a dog crate or x-pen, or up on cat perches to increase the skill level needed to solve the puzzle.  Empty milk cartons, egg containers, plastic nut containers, paper towel or gift wrap tubes, etc. can all be fashioned into makeshift puzzles for your pets as long as you supervise them.

4.  Take them for a walk:  Just because you can't walk outdoors doesn't mean you can't walk your pets.  Put on their leashes and walk them all over your house inside. Practice your loose leash walking skills, keeping a smile in your leash at all times.  Treat every doorway you pass through as a stop sign; have your dog sit and wait to go through.  If you have soccer cones, set those up inside and maneuver your leashed pet around them as if they were obstacles you'd encounter on a walk.  Take the leash off and use your "invisible leash" to walk your dog.  Put a treat in your closed fist, drop your hand to your side where your dog can smell the snack, and begin walking just as you would if they were leashed.  

5.  Junk Box Game:  I love doing this one in my puppy classes, but it can really be done with dogs of any age, including seniors. Gather a bunch of items your dog might find interesting to sniff and/or pick up if you were out on a walk and put them in a box.  Things like empty water bottles, dirty paper plates, used cups, wadded up paper towels or napkins, used aluminum foil, ziploc bags with food remnants inside, etc. all work for this game.  Once a day, with your dog in another room, bring out your box and spread your junk items all around.  Bring your dog into the room on leash (or off, if you're ready for that!) and walk them around the items on the floor.  Let them sniff, but if they try to pick something up, say "Leave it!" and redirect with a treat or toy.  If they've already picked it up, say "Drop it!" and redirect/trade.  Once you can do this with your junk box items, try with real food on the floor as well.

Don't forget that regular grooming is even more important in inclement weather as brushing, combing, etc. removes loose hair and dead skin cells, allowing better air movement and thermoregulation by your pets. Incorporate some handling exercises and massage techniques (see one of my previous posts on T-Touch for specific techniques!) into your grooming sessions.

My client was relieved to have some concrete actions to take and said she'd do what she could now, but plans to be even better prepared before the next storm blows through her area.  I told her that these same ideas will work in the summer too when temperatures are too high to be outdoors. She said, at this point, she's dreaming of the day that her only problem is that it is too warm to go outside! LOL!

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

Desi, Ozzie, and Westley eating kibble hidden in snuffle balls!

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Why Are My Cats Hating On Each Other Now?

Last week, I had a client reach out regarding her two cats.  One cat had stayed home while the other went to the veterinarian's office for the day for a dental procedure.  When she brought the second cat home following the dental, the cat that had been home all day immediately reacted in a very aggressive manner, arching her back, hissing and growling with her ears pinned back.  The client was so taken aback as the cats have always gotten along great, sleeping together, playing together, and grooming each other.  She erred on the side of caution and separated the cats for the rest of the day, figuring they'd be back to their usual companionable selves the following day.  Well, they are two weeks post dental and the cats still can't be in the same room without the cat who'd been home all along growling and posturing.  My client is at her wit's end with this situation as keeping the cats separated forever just isn't a feasible option for her.  Ever had this happen to you too?

This behavior is actually not uncommon.  It is called feline non-recognition aggression and it refers to one cat behaving in an uncharacteristically aggressive manner toward a companion cat in the household after a period of separation (the period of separation could be anything from a few hours to a few days or more). While it is sometimes the case as with my client's cats that it is just one cat who behaves aggressively, in some homes the cat who has been gone may not simply flee or freeze, but actually fight back, creating an even bigger problem. While this situation isn't completely understood, we do have a pretty good idea of where the problem arises.  Most likely the change in the relationship is rooted in smell.  The cat who has been gone smells different and therefore foreign; perhaps the cat who has been gone smells like a sick animal, like anxiety, or simply like the disinfectants used in the veterinary hospital where they received their care. If the cat coming home is also behaving differently (e.g. sluggish, tired, or wobbly), that may be triggering the cat left at home to think this isn't their companion cat, but an unfamiliar.  It may also be the case that the cat who has been gone for the day is emitting pheromones which cannot be detected by humans, but are sensed by other cats and result in aggressive behavior. For example, the cat who has been gone may have expressed their anal glands due to stress and that odor is causing the other cat to respond with aggression. All of this makes sense when you acknowledge that cats recognize each other based on scent much more than on visual cues or appearance. 

There are no easy fixes for this problem, and it is certainly the case that some cats are predisposed to behave in this manner and if they've done it on one occasion, it will happen again the next time the cats are apart. There isn't really anything cat owners can do in advance of a veterinary visit, or that your vet can do during the vet visit to potentially avoid this issue. If you know your cat will behave this way, then keeping the cats separate for however long it takes for them to become amenable to one another again is what has to occur. For some cats, bathing, at a minimum the cat who has been to the vet's office, can help as it gets rid of the hospital smell. After the bath, rub the cat with something that has their previously familiar smell. Hopefully, that will help the cats recognize each other.  For other cats, it's even better to bathe them both; that way neither cat smells like themselves, both smell like fresh, clean slates when reintroduced.  It goes without saying that you never want to bring two cats together if one is still feeling the effects of their vet visit and is dopey, painful, etc.  Finally, if your vet is amenable to it, you may just want to send both cats to the vet at the same time; the cat not receiving the dental procedure can simply board there for the day.  That way, both cats return home smelling like a vet hospital!

First and foremost, do not let your cats "fight it out."  Cats don't resolve their issues this way like many dogs do. Interrupt any aggression you see by clapping your hands/stomping your feet, squirting water or compressed air at the aggressor cat.  Try to move the aggressor cat into a separate room (NOT the cat being aggressed) where he/she can decompress. They may need to be in this room for several hours to several days, so make sure this room is set up for them with litter boxes, climbing perches, food and water, etc. If you have to pick up the aggressor to move them, throw a towel or blanket over them BEFORE you try to pick them up to make the situation safer for you both. Resist the urge to try to placate either cat; just let them both be so that they can calm down on their own. Remember that a cat when upset can redirect aggression at anyone in their vicinity, so make sure your aggressor cat is alone in that room (no other pets, and make sure than any humans entering the space are aware that they need to ignore this cat for safety reasons).
Gradual introductions will be needed, with cats on opposite sides of closed doors, screens, or gates working up to cracking the door open, to opening the door and supervising their time together.  A good place to start is by placing each cat's food bowl near the shared door or gate so that they are eating together. You want to aim for them ignoring one another (best case option, actually) and hopefully over time work toward them tolerating one another, and then becoming friends again.  In some homes, pheromones can help with the reintroduction phase, so Feliway spray and plug-ins can be used.  In other homes, giving CBD oil to the aggressor cat can help with their underlying anxiety and stress. Realistic expectations are key, however, as some cats never return to being friendly with one another, in spite of everything you do.  And remember that this is likely to happen again if it's already happened once; the next time a cat in your home has to be gone for any period of time, confine the other cat to ensure that the aggression doesn't happen again from the outset. 

Non-recognition aggression is unique to cats and not something we see in dogs.  Most likely this is the case because cats rely more on smell for identifying each other, while dogs use visual markers and past experiences more than scent recognition.  

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

Cats are sociable and quite capable of forming friendships and alliances with other cats, and even dogs.  Age is definitely a factor, as is personality.  And how cats feel about each other can change over time, and not always for the better!

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Just a Few of My Favorite Things!

I spoke with a client this morning who is getting a puppy next week.  She already has a senior dog and her son is living with them now with his adolescent Labrador, so she's going to have her hands full soon! She loves sending me ideas for my blog that she and her dog-loving friends come up with over coffee once a month, but asked if this time around I'd answer a question specifically for her.  She wanted to know my top five things that every puppy owner should have; she was pretty sure she knew what I would say (that there are a lot more than five!), but if I could only pick five, what would they be?  It was hard, but I think these would be my top 5 puppy picks:

1.  An x-pen:  Yes, I believe in crate training, but not every puppy loves a crate.  X-pens are terrific for time outs (yours and your puppy's!), for use outside as a designated potty area, and for trips to visit your friends and the park, where you will want your puppy to have some freedom to explore, but under your careful and controlled supervision.

2.  A Snuggle Puppy:  These stuffed dogs that come with a heartbeat and a heat pack can be real lifesavers for puppies living away from their moms and siblings for the first time.  They reduce anxiety with sleeping alone, and help puppies to transition to their new families.  They can often help with crate training as well, making puppies feel safer when left alone.  If you've never seen a Snuggle Puppy, check them out Chewy, Amazon, or the company's own website,

3.  A Nylabone Puppy Pack:  I love a lot of the products from Nylabone, but their puppy packs are indispensable as they cover all your bases:  a gummy-textured, flavored bone for chewing, an edible bone, a hard bone for active chewers, and a "nubbed" bone (that can even be frozen!) for those teething puppies.  I'm pretty sure I bought dozens of these Nylabone Puppy Packs when Ozzie was a puppy; they saved me from buying new furniture, for sure!

4.  Braided Rope Toys:  Buy these in bulk as well!  You can (obviously) use them for fetch and tug-of-war, but they can also be soaked in water or chicken broth and then frozen for added teething/chewing joy for your puppy.  Just throw them in the wash when they get icky, and you are ready to start all over again.

5.  A Puppy Kong:  There are interactive puzzle toys I love much more than the Kong, but nothing beats a frozen Kong for keeping a puppy busy so you can shower, answer email, or just have 10 minutes to yourself.  For really active puppies, I recommend only feeding them from a bowl one meal a day; the other two to four meals (depending on the size and breed of your puppy) can be given in a Kong.  Simply put the kibble into the Kong and cover the hole with peanut butter, almond butter, or plain Greek yogurt and freeze.  

It was hard to limit myself to just five, but I feel like any new puppy owner would be off to a great start if they had these on hand.  Is there anything else you'd add to the list? Or change?  I'd love to know your favorite puppy things too.

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

Here is my friend's Saint Bernard puppy, Bubba, with his Snuggle Puppy.  
Like every good dog mom, she got two of them, just in case!