That Crazy Dog, Explained
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That Crazy Dog, Explained

She ate your sofa. He panics at the sight of a scooter. What is going on inside that furry little head? Animal-behavior experts give answers.

Q. Why does my dog tear apart the house whenever we leave her home alone?

A. She may just be bored, a problem easily solved by hiring a midday dog walker and buying some fun new toys, says veteran animal trainer Victoria Stilwell, host of the Animal Planet show It's Me or the Dog. If that doesn't work, your pooch might have separation anxiety. If she whines and scratches at the door after you leave and follows you around when you're home, she may be afraid you're never coming back. To get her to relax, fake her out, Stilwell suggests. Grab your coat and keys, go out the door and come back in again. Repeat the exercise until your dog gets used to it and stops reacting.

Q. Our dog is housebroken, but he pees on the furniture when we have guests over. How can we make him stop?

A. Your dog may not like it that you're focusing on your visitors instead of on him, and he probably learned early on that lifting his leg on the sofa is a great way to get your attention, says Tamar Geller, author of 30 Days to a Well-Mannered Dog. Putting out his favorite chew toys can keep your attention-deprived hound busy so you can entertain your friends without worrying about a pee incident. "But don't leave the same old toys on the floor at all times," Geller says. "He'll lose interest." She separates toys into gold, silver, and bronze categories, based on the dog's preference. Save the gold toys for the times your dog is most likely to misbehave.

Q. Why is my dog so terrified of anything with wheels? He freaks out when a skateboard, bike, or scooter goes by.

A. Wheel-phobia is a common dog neurosis -- your pooch doesn't understand what those fast-moving things are, so they scare him. Geller suggests putting a skateboard or bicycle next to his food bowl and leaving it there for a few days. "Trust me, his love of food is stronger than his fear," she says. Once he has gotten used to it sitting there, move it -- slowly. The minute he starts getting uncomfortable, say "wheels" in a happy, excited tone and give him a treat. With enticing goodies and regular practice, he'll soon be able to roll with it when kids go whizzing past.

Q. My dog growls at anyone who comes near while she's eating. It scares me, but I don't know what to do!

A. Her growl isn't a sign of aggression but rather her way of telling you she's afraid you'll take her dinner away. This is known in animal-behavior circles as "food guarding." You shouldn't tolerate the growling, but a harsh reprimand will just make her more scared, Stilwell says. Instead, make it clear to her that you're the chef, not a potential kibble thief. Pretend you're preparing a meal for her, but put down an empty bowl. Then, drop a few kibbles into the bowl and wait for her to eat it all before adding more. Feed her bit by bit and make her wait each time. Then show her you're not going to take her food away by walking past while she's eating and dropping a piece of chicken into her bowl. "It'll start to sink in that humans are just passing through, not coming after her dog chow," Stilwell says.

Q. Ever since my daughter left for college last fall, my dog has been peeing and pooping in the house. What's his problem?

A. Your dog has empty nest syndrome, says Colleen Paige, author of The Good Behavior Book for Dogs. He misses your daughter and doesn't understand where she went or why she left, which confuses him. To help him through his grief, make sure he's getting double the exercise and double the attention. This will ease him into your family's new situation.

Q. I know dogs lick themselves, but mine has taken a patch of fur right down to bare skin! Why is she doing this?

A. A dog that just can't stop licking may need medication, so talk to your vet, who can rule out food allergies, rashes, or other physical reasons for it. But your dog could simply be stressed or anxious. Obsessive-compulsive disorders are not unheard of in dogs -- other examples are excessive shadow- or tail-chasing. What starts as a way for the dog to release stress can turn into a compulsion. "It's the same as a person who obsessively washes her hands," Stilwell explains -- or the wild animal who compulsively paces in a too-small zoo enclosure. Antidepressant or antianxiety medication may help, but so can increasing her level of physical and mental stimulation. Give her more exercise, teach her new games and tricks, and play hide-and-seek with treats. Instead of the usual dog dish, try feeding her using a puzzle toy that dispenses kibble.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2011.

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