Category Archives: Behaviour

‘Dementia’ and Age Related Changes

 

Behavioural problems in senior pets can result from medical issues like arthritic pain, loss of sight/hearing or diseases that affect the nervous system. They can also be attributed to age related deterioration of the brain known as Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.

In mild cases the pet may sleep more, become less responsive or show less social interaction with family and other pets. More severe signs might include repetitive behaviours such as pacing, new fears and anxieties, house soiling, waking at night, confusion and disorientation or loss of recognition of training cues.

The behaviour changes may be noticed following changes to the household or environment that the pet has difficulty adapting to. Early detection provides the best opportunity to help these pets and slow cognitive decline.

Prevention: What can you do?
  • For healthy senior pets, twice-yearly wellness examinations and laboratory screening tests provide an opportunity to identify emerging problems, sometimes before there are outward signs.
  • Report changes in your pet’s health and behaviour to the vet early.
  • If you foresee changes in your pets environment or schedule, try to make these gradual so you elderly pet has time to adapt.
  • Providing mental and physical enrichment helps to maintain a healthy brain and body. If your pet begins to slow down, find new games, new toys and new ways to play to stimulate the brain and keep the body active.
  • Play and exercise help most if continued throughout life and adjusted for age related physical limitations, for example supported swimming for arthritic dogs.
  • Leash walking exercises muscles and provides mental stimulation via smell and social interactions. Use a harness, sling or pram/stroller if they can’t manage walking. Take a ‘sniff stroll’ rather trying to cover ground. Trim nails and hair under their feet for a better grip.
  • Supervise play and pick mates matched by temperament, ability and size. Redirect the new puppy play if your old pet tires. Watching play may be enough.
  • Car trips are fun for some dogs. They enjoy the tactile sensations of the breeze, the smells and company. A ramp may be needed for access and comfy padding in the vehicle to cushion old joints. Take care in warm weather to prevent overheating.
  • Be creative in seeking ways to make it easier for them. Elevate the water dish to shoulder height; warm food and add water/broth to food to increase palatability and water intake; give cats more litter trays for convenient access and cut down tray height; set up ramps to reduce the need to use stairs; cats benefit from stepped platforms leading to high perches; have the cat/dog flap at floor level; use hall runners or a paw friction product to provide grip on slippery floors; add psyllium to the diet to reduce constipation; clip heavy coats and matts for freer movement and summer comfort; provide a winter coat if they feel the winter chill.
Cats benefit from lower litter trays and ramps to their favourite places.
  • Smell provides great mental stimulation. Provide food puzzles and hidden treats. Visit unfamiliar places.
  • Hand signals or vibrating (NOT shock) collars can be used to communicate to deaf dogs. Lavender scent trails can guide the blind.
  • Practice massage and range of motion exercises for sore legs.

 

Treating problems: How can you help?
  • Medical problems need to be identified and treated, however retraining may also be required. For example, if your pet begins house soiling due to a medical issue, the problem may persist after the medical issue is resolved unless you use positive reinforcement to train the pet to return to the preferred locations and supervise access to the soiled areas.
  • For problems that cannot be completely resolved, you may need to make schedule adjustments to accommodate your pet’s needs. For example pets with kidney disease need to urinate more often so you may need to take your dog out to the toilet more frequently or reward them for using training pads. Provide extra litter trays or clean the litter tray more frequently if your cat urinates more due to kidney disease.
  • Maintain an enriched environment that stimulates your pet’s brain and body. Adjust their social play, exercise and training according to their health. Use their favourite food and toys to train new cues, practice previous training and play games of hide and find. Food release toys that provide manipulation to obtain the food or treats provide a challenge to stimulate your pet’s mind.

Veterinary treatment:
  • Medications can be prescribed to improve neurotransmitter function and brain activity or act as antioxidants. Medication that reduces physical pain, for example from arthritis, can allow your pet to enjoy more physical and mental activity.
  • A prescription veterinary diet is available containing antioxidants and fatty acids that reduce signs of cognitive decline by improving neurotransmission. It has been shown to help old dogs stay active, enjoy interactions, reduce sleep disturbances and retain house training.
  • Many natural products are touted to be effective and your vet will be able to advise you on supplements that may be useful.
If you are noticing changes in your senior pets
behaviour or would like more information on helping
your elderly pet get the most out of day to day life
please phone us on (02) 6230 2223.

Taming the Party Dog

Excitable dog behaviour such as jumping on people and mouthiness are very common behaviours, especially amongst young dogs. While a Chihuahua pup might not cause much damage when it jumps at your visitor, the hurtling missile of fun in the shape of the adolescent Labrador can cause injury. Jumping up, attention barking and even mouthiness are often linked to the pet’s level of excitability.

Times of high arousal lead to excitement and frustration in the pet – so daily greetings, playing, requesting food or meeting someone while out on a walk are all triggers for an explosion of inappropriate behaviours such as jumping up and mouthiness. These behaviours can be given a safer and more appropriate outlet.

JUMPING UP

If your dog jumps up to greet you, how about teaching a totally different behaviour, such as to retrieve a toy, sit calmly and give it to you. That then gives the excitability an outlet and means that the dog has something in its mouth other than your hand.

MOUTHINESS

A pup’s choice of tool for investigating and interacting with the world is its mouth. They’ll use it to explore everything including grabbing your fingers, hands, arms, clothes etc. If you squeal when they nip you this can be misinterpreted as a game, with you as the squeaky toy. To prevent this, make hand movements around dogs slow. Also, resist the urge to roughhouse play with your dog using your hands — and ALL members of the household need to adhere to this rule.

Provide appropriate chew items for your dog such as raw hides, raw carrots and chew toys.

BARKING FOR ATTENTION

For dogs that bark for attention, immediately withdraw your attention by turning your back on the dog. Saying ‘No’ to the dog in this instance actually rewards the barking as the dog can just as easily interpret the ‘No’ as ‘Hello’. Dogs are masters of body language, so removing your facial contact with the dog is far more effective at diminishing this behaviour. However, remember that you still need to reward the desirable behaviour. When your dog is quiet, reward that with calm, low key praise.

SUPPORT

Some dogs seem to understand what is expected more easily than others. At Hall Veterinary Surgery we can help you with these problems through personalised training strategies and behaviour consultations. Our website has a range of help sheets for you to download, or you can have a chat to a trainer or our veterinary behaviourist by calling us on 6230 2223.

 

Setting them up to win – looking for red flags in pups

Early learning in puppies and red flags for mental health.

When we welcome a dog or pup into our lives, we have certain expectations about how they should behave and fit into our family life. As social creatures able to bond with humans, dogs have co-evolved and shared our lives for thousands of years. However, each pup’s survival within their human family is dependent on them displaying desirable behaviours.

Related image

 

What affects your pup’s behaviour?

The behaviour your pup chooses at any particular moment is affected by their genetic make-up, what they have learned and their current situation or environment.

Genetic make-up is not just about breed. In fact there is more diversity in behaviour between individuals or family lines within a breed than between different breeds.

Learning has a huge impact on the behaviour choices your dog will make and there is so much we can do to teach our pups to grow into ‘good citizens’. We can provide positive opportunities for them to adapt to all the weird and wonderful things in our world and use rewards to help them associate challenging situations with good things.

 

When does your pup’s mental development start?

From birth to adulthood, you puppy’s brain is undergoing intense development. Even in the womb, a pup’s development can be compromised if their mother is suffering environmental stress.

Right from the beginning, the pup is learning how best to survive in their world. The first hundred days is a crucial period when they will most benefit from positive exposure to the stimuli that make up their world. They must learn how to socialize to other dogs and people in these early weeks to be suitable companions.

In the normal pup, there is a pruning of neurons in the brain over this time that helps reduce overwhelm and over reactive behaviour. This helps them learn what to pay attention to and what they can safely ignore.

A pup’s early experience during the socialising period affects resilience or coping capacity. A small amount of stress like being gently handled is important in developing the ability to bounce back from stress later on. However, if faced with too much stress or too many choices, the pup will turn their attention away from the world around them and shut down to learning about their environment. Pups raised in isolation or impoverished environments are also more susceptible to becoming anxious and need early interventions to help them feel safe in the real world.

At two-three weeks of age, pups benefit from a moderate variety of textures and structures to enrich their environment and promote development.

From three to twelve weeks, pups learn through play about their social structure and natural bite inhibition. They are very receptive to new experiences at this time, rapidly socialising and learning to accept new objects and situations. Introduction to other breeds is important at this stage and puppy preschool is a great opportunity to do this in a controlled way.

A fear period between eight and ten weeks is a time when a traumatic experience can outweigh positive exposure and cause lasting fears, so it is important to provide environmental enrichment without overdoing stressors. Resilience will vary greatly with genetic background, however the trauma of shipping pups to new homes at this age can sometimes result in lasting emotional damage.

Pups left in impoverished environments without the opportunity to explore their world by fourteen to twenty weeks will not voluntarily do so and can become terrified and distressed if forced out of their comfort zone. Early social intervention is essential to help pups develop resilience and normal behaviour.

The age of separation from mum is another important consideration. Pups separated from mum when only 30-40 days old grow up to show more destructive behaviours, barking, fear on walks, reactivity to noises and food/toy possessiveness than pups weaned after two months.

The home environment of the pup can also be a risk factor to puppy mental health with those pups in an enriched home environment generally fairing best.

 

How do we recognise anxiety in a little pup?

We need to learn to recognise dog body language. Pups that are fearful can show yawning when not tired, panting, ears back and lip licking. They may be withdrawn and non-social or anxious when left alone.

What can be done?

Living with stress has an impact on both mental and physical health. Early intervention is key to helping pups develop the resilience to cope in our world. Identifying problems and early treatment increases the chance of success as pups don’t tend to grow out of fear.

Treatment is divided into environmental management, behaviour modification and in some cases medication. Dog appeasement pheromone can also be helpful to calm these pups.

Diets rich in fish oils (EPA and DHA), taurine, Vitamin E and L-carnitine can assist neuronal development and learning.

Physical and mental stimulation with sensory cues like games to sniff out things and puzzle solving can help to develop cognitive ability and lower reactivity.

We can help pups develop the ability to be calm on cue through rewarding calm behaviour in varied and stimulating environments. Please don’t hesitate to call us on (02) 6230 2223 if you are concerned about your puppy’s development.

 

 

Helping Dogs with Separation Distress

‘Velcro’ dogs as they can be known, always want to be super close, even touching their owner in case you go away. This is a joy when you are with them, however some dogs can’t be left without getting upset and will bark continuously or destroy property (or themselves) in an effort to find you.

Image result for clingy dog

Separation distress is a condition that results from anxiety. Other common anxious behaviours in dogs include fear of noises, situations or unfamiliar people or dogs. Anxiety is a fear of perceived threats. We know they are safe at home without us, however your dog may be completely unable to cope without the company of family members. Much of the time, it’s human rather than canine company that they crave so getting another dog is rarely the answer.

Separation distress occurs in up to 15% of dogs and studies have shown that up to 80% of dogs have an increase in their stress hormones when alone. The desperate ‘nuisance’ barking or expensive destruction of property account for many pets being relinquished to shelters.

Why do some dogs suffer separation distress?

Various theories have been put forward for the dysfunctional attachment to owners or the fear of being left alone. Genetics can play a part, however the most powerful predictor is separation from an attachment figure early in life. Pups can readily transfer their attachment from their dam to their new human owner’s care, however, they need attention when young in order to grow up independent. The risk is greater in pups of single owners as they are alone more. There is an increased risk when owners are anxious when leaving the pup and make a fuss when they return. Dogs with a shelter background are more at risk as they have often lost confidence in attachment figures.

When does separation distress start?

The onset usually occurs before two years of age. It can follow the loss of a human or animal companion, moving house, a change in the owners schedule or a stay away from home in boarding or hospital. It can also occur along with other anxiety based behaviours, like noise or thunderstorm fear.

What are the signs of separation distress?

These signs only occur with separation, however some dogs cope with predictable regular departures but panic with unexpected departures. Most dogs show signs within 10 minutes of departure.

Signs include:

  • Destruction of property. This is a desperate attempt to escape the barriers to finding you. Most often the damage will be around windows, blinds or doors. Other dogs will chew anywhere in the house in an attempt to cope with anxiety.
  • Barking and whining are also attempt to communicate with you.
  • Urination with or without defecation in the house.
  • Increased grooming that causes hairless, ulcerated areas on the skin.
  • Pacing and shadowing the owner before a departure and over-exuberant greetings
  • Severe fear signs include dilated pupils, salivation, vomiting and inability to eat when alone.
How do I know this is anxiety related?

Destructive behaviour can also occur with normal puppy chewing or exploratory behaviour, particularly if the pup’s needs for mental and physical stimulation are not met. Some dogs destroy barriers when they are frustrated, for example they see a rabbit over the fence that they want to chase. Others bark at passersby or bark as social communication to attract attention. Dogs with separation distress show anxious body language that occurs when they are alone. Video footage can be helpful for diagnosis.

What can I do to help?

We recommend a thorough behaviour assessment to develop a treatment plan for your dog.

Attempts to desensitize dogs to pre-departure cues by scrambling or avoiding the usual cues eg. donning work clothing, picking up of keys, rarely works as the dog quickly learns the new cues.

Training to gradually increase the length of the departure is generally tedious and unsuccessful.

It can be helpful to initially stop fueling the fear by not leaving your pet alone all day. Consider options for day care.

This is an example of a protocol to help your pet can learn to cope alone:

Before leaving:

  • Take your dog for lots of exercise. This could be in excess of an hour in the morning for some dogs to enable them to become tired and fulfil their physical and mental needs.
  • Hold the morning meal until you leave. Use a non-performance ration.
  • Act happy as you leave rather than communicate worry.
  • Use the ‘wait’ command before feeding.
  • Present the morning meal, which is half the dog’s daily ration in multiple food release toys or puzzles eg. Kongs, treat balls, wobblers, frozen treats or hide the food as you leave.
  • Make your leaving into party time!

Image result for dog treat toys

When you are away:

  • Leave your pet with an optimal environment.
  • Appeal to your dog’s sense of taste. This will be different for every dog. Some love dried liver powder mixed with the food.
  • Appeal to their sense of smell to provide interest. The smell could be associated with a chew toy eg vanilla, anise or an animal odour.
  • Appeal to their sense of vision. For example, provide a bird feeder to watch, access to a view, dog TV, a dog door to access inside and out.
  • Appeal to their sense of hearing. Play a CD going of sounds your dog may like eg “Through a Dogs ear”.
  • Appeal to their sense of touch. Provide a comfortable resting place. Put some of your unwashed clothing in their bed. Crates that represent a safe refuge can be provided, however leave the door open.

When you return:

  • Your return must be very low key.
  • Pick up all the uneaten food and items that you left at departure. The party is over.
  • Wait an hour before feeding the evening meal.

Teach independence:

  • Ignore demanding attention seeking behaviour.
  • When you start to ignore attention seeking behaviours, the dog may increase their attempt to get your attention. Take care not to reward this heightened behaviour.
  • Remember that saying ‘No’, speaking to your dog, looking at them or pushing them down represents attention and rewards the behaviour.
  • Reward calm and independent behaviour.
  • Foster clear and consistent routines where your dog sits to receive good things in life.
  • If they sleep on your bed, teach them to sleep in their own bed near to yours. Use a tether initially if they keep jumping up with you.
  • Provide them with lots of exercise, off leash where possible.
  • Make theirs an interesting life. Are they suitable for agility? Do they enjoy training or tricks?

Can medication help?

One of the most important goals in behaviour therapy is to reduce the underlying anxiety so learning can begin. Some anxious dogs are unable to learn new strategies to cope without medication as they have a physical illness. Whilst medication usually does not work without avoidance or fear triggers and the use of behaviour modification, it is often very helpful to reduce anxiety to a level that allows a starting point for retraining. Background and situational medications can play a large part in the management of separation anxiety and the vet will discuss these during a behaviour consultation.

Dog Safety Tips for All of the Family

Well-adjusted dogs add so much to our lives and to our families. They provide companionship, fun times and exercise, and help us teach our children about responsibility and caring for others.

Image result for dog with family

However even the nicest, well socialised dog can use aggression to distance themselves from a threat and keep themselves safe. There are also dogs who suffer anxieties that make them more reactive to normal situations because they perceive these as threatening.

You, your family and your community can take simple steps to reduce the number of dog bites that occur. As well as the physical and emotional trauma caused to victims of dog bites, many dogs lose their homes or their lives after a bite that should never have occurred. Let’s set them up to win!

Here are some ways to keep the families and family pets in your community safe.

Safety around dogs

Dog are more likely to bite in situations that frighten them.  They want to escape the threat and aggression works for them to keep them safe. Physical discomfort or previous scary events may make them less tolerant. Try to put yourself in their paws and understand how we can prevent many incidents that result in dog bites.

Here are some tips to help dogs feel safe around people.
  • Always ask permission before petting or touching someone else’s dog. Let the dog come to you. If they don’t want to, that’s their prerogative. Leave them alone.
  • Never hug a dog. They may feel vulnerable or trapped.
  • Notice their body language. Most of the time, we encounter friendly, wiggly dogs in public but be cautious if a dog stiffens or is not wagging in a loose and friendly way.
  • Never approach a dog you don’t know. If you are approached by a strange dog, stand quietly, hands at your sides and avoid eye contact. A dog’s natural instinct is to chase, so if you turn and run, a dog may chase you.
  • Never corner a dog. All dogs have a sense of personal space, so watch their body language as you approach.
  • Do not approach dogs in cars, kennels or on a tether. They may feel vulnerable when they can’t run away so their only defence might be to lunge or bite in an effort to increase their distance from the perceived threat.
  • Don’t reach over or through fences or barriers to pet or touch a dog.
  • Never approach or startle a dog while they’re sleeping, focussed on something, or with their puppies.
  • Never yell or make loud noises around dogs. Their hearing is very sensitive. Speak to them calmly.
  • Never get between dogs who are fighting or reach towards their heads as you may get bitten.
  • Leave dogs alone when they are eating, whether the dog is eating from a bowl or chewing a treat, toy or any other high-value item. Like people, dogs don’t like it when people get between them and their food.
  • Never tease, chase or harass a dog.
  • Don’t enter a property containing a dog unless the dog’s person is with you. Dogs can be defensive of their family’s attention or their home territory.

 

The dog-safe family
  • Children should always be closely supervised around dogs, even the family dog.
  • Supervising children around dogs not only protects the children from accidents but also protects the dog from harm by children who don’t always know that touching animals in a certain way can hurt them.
  • Never leave babies unattended around dogs. Dogs may not understand about being gentle with babies or even know what a baby is.
  • If you’re expecting a baby, start early to get your dog used to the changes a baby will make to their lives.
  • Don’t attempt or allow your children to attempt to remove anything (toys, food or other objects) from your dog’s mouth. Instead, find something of equal or greater value to offer your dog as a trade.
  • Teach your children about dog safety early and promote dog-safe practices (see kids and dog safety videos below).

 

Good dog habits
  • Socialise your dog and make them a part of your family activities early on. Even after their first vaccinations, take them out to safe places so they can become comfortable through gentle exposure to the many situations of their world.
  • Take your puppy to preschool and adolescent classes that use only positive reinforcement training techniques. Learn to teach your dog appropriate behaviours in a humane, effective, and ethical way. Get the whole family involved.
  • Don’t allow children to play rough with your dog, as they can accidentally hurt the dog or encourage him to become mouthy. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play games like fetch and tug. Teaching your dog to play games using healthy rules will help them to learn self-control.
  • Avoid reprimanding or any form of physical punishment because it will make your dog fearful and increases the risk of aggression. Make your motto “Don’t do that, do this instead” and make a habit of moulding good behaviour through rewarding a desirable alternative.
  • Provide lots of exercise for your dog through play and frequent walks. Walks provide great exercise for you and your dog as well as social opportunities to meet other dog lovers. Regular activity not only enriches their lives but also reduces frustration or boredom. Interactive play increases the bond between you and your pet.
  • Make sure that your dog has lots of human interaction every day. As social animals, dogs thrive on social interaction and love to be a part of the family.
  • Avoid tethering your dog. Tethering removes a dog’s ability to flee and may make them feel vulnerable. If they can’t escape a perceived threat, the only option is to use aggression.
  • Never let your dog roam free. Letting your dog roam freely greatly increases their chance of injury from cars or other animals. A roaming dog may become confused or frightened, leading to aggressive behaviour.
  • Use caution when introducing your dog to new people, new dogs or new situations. Your goal is to provide the dog with a succession of happy experiences so their social skills will continually improve. Listen to their body language.
  • If your dog’s behaviour changes (e.g., he becomes irritable), bring him/her in for a check-up. Behaviour changes can be a symptom of a medical problem.

 

Here are some useful resources for families with fur kids.

http://stopthe77.com/.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNYM5lwaLmI

http://info.drsophiayin.com/kids-and-dogs-1

https://www.thebluedog.org/en/

 https://www.thefamilydog.com/ 

Helping ‘Zeke’ to Chill – Why some anxious dogs need medication

Zeke’s owner Ella had lot of experience raising other dogs, including her chilled female Pug X, Morgan. But puppy Zeke (also a Pug X) was different. He seemed anxious and aroused on his walks, barking and lunging at unfamiliar people, dogs, cars and bikes with hackles raised. Ella was especially concerned when Zeke reacted  aggressively towards children as her own baby was on the way. It was a fiasco getting through the gate into the dog park and he would visibly shake with dilated pupils during car trips. Games were no fun as Zeke’s mouthy play had escalated to biting hard and holding on!

Ella had taken Zeke to puppy preschool and tried adolescent obedience classes with an experienced trainer, however Zeke could only focus enough to learn when taken off to a far corner away from the other dogs. So with one month to go before Ella’s baby was due, Ella and Jordan brought 9 month old Zeke for a veterinary behaviour consultation.

Zeke’s issues stemmed from an underlying anxiety, a common cause of behavioural problems associated with a physical anomaly in brain chemistry.  This is a medical disorder caused in part by his genetic makeup as well as previous experiences.

Anxious animals, like anxious people have trouble coping with even small changes in routine. They also react fearfully towards ‘normal’ things in their world because they perceive these as threats. Unfamiliar dogs, people, kids and car trips were so distressing for Zeke that he would go into a fight or flight response in an attempt to escape or avert the trigger for his fear.

Anxious dogs have trouble learning new things because they are focused on what they perceive as life threatening matters around them. Their fear brain is in overdrive and hijacks their ability to think. This is where medication can help turn things around. Just as we might treat a diabetic dog with insulin to manage their illness, medication is helpful to manage anxiety.

Zeke was prescribed anti-anxiety medication to normalise his brain chemistry so that he could better cope with perceived stressors in his day to day life and learn calmer responses.

Is medication enough to cure anxious behaviour?

In most cases anxiety can be managed but not cured and medication alone is not enough. Anxious behaviours including fear aggression, separation anxiety, noise sensitivity and compulsive disorders require a three pronged treatment plan supervised by a behaviour veterinarian for best results. These animals do not grow out of their anxiety and without treatment they can get worse with time. Life continues to present opportunities for the dog to rehearse and reinforce the fear response.

During the behaviour consultation, and detailed in the report that followed, we formulate a plan with Ella and Jordan:

  • To modify Zeke’s exposure to the environmental triggers in order to reduce opportunities for him to practice the anxious behaviours.
  • To practice simple training tools that reinforce calm behaviour.
  • To use anti-anxiety medication and calming pheromones to set Zeke’s brain up for success
What is the effect of the medication?

Anti-anxiety medication is not sedation. The medication prescribed for Zeke increases serotonin levels in the brain and helps these nerve pathways to function more normally over time. This helps him to be less reactive and improves his ability to learn that calm behaviour is rewarding. By dampening the reactivity, Zeke can better learn positive associations to things that previously scared him. Ella compared Zeke with her’ normal’ dog, Morgan who rested most of the time between periods of exercise. Zeke remained bright and alert, however the medication helped him to be less restless and reactive.

When does the medication start to work?

There are two main categories of anti-anxiety medication – long term daily medication to reduce general anxiety levels and short term medication given as needed to manage particular stressful events.

The long term medications prescribed for Zeke take 6-8 weeks to become properly effective although further improvement can be expected up to 12 months after beginning. As they take effect, Ella has noticed Zeke is better able to learn and she finds it easier to teach him to be calm. She knows to take baby steps and choose times to reward calm behaviour where there are few distractions.

Event medications work quickly, often within an hour of dosing and can help greatly for potentially stressful events like thunderstorms, vet visits or being left alone. Zeke found a recent storms scary and coped best when Ella let him snuggle into bed with her. This is a situation where an event medication may help to calm Zeke and block his memory of the storm so that future events are less scary.

How long will my pet be on medication?

We recommend that Zeke continues the medication for at least 12 months so that it can take full effect and give Ella enough time with Zeke to shape calm habits. There is no quick fix for changing anxiety based behaviours. Behaviour modification is different from obedience training. Effective behaviour change is about changing the underlying emotional response to the situations that previously triggered fear. This takes time.

The length of time on medication differs with each individual case and follow up is important to reassess each individual’s needs. The severity of the problem, the desired outcome, the commitment to the behaviour modification program, the family and environmental situation and the pet’s reaction to the medication all influence the length of treatment.

In some cases, the pet’s behaviour problem is managed so successfully that we can wean them off the medication. In other cases, both pet and owner have a much better quality of life if the pet remains on medication long term.

Is medication safe for my pet?

All medications have the potential for side effects and these differ with each one. Generally speaking, side effects of the anti-anxiety medication that we prescribed for Zeke are rare or mild. Personality changes are not expected. The most common side effects associated with the baseline anti-anxiety medications, are a transient gastrointestinal upset or reduced appetite and mild sedation that resolves during the first two weeks. Behaviour medications are excreted through the liver and kidneys so we check with a blood test before starting and then annually to ensure these organs remain healthy.

What about pheromones?

Dog appeasement pheromone is a synthetically derived chemical identical to that produced by female dogs during lactation, which acts to calm and reassure their pups. It has been proven to help reduce anxiety in both puppies and adult dogs during stressful situations. It is available as a diffuser, spray or collar. Ella set up the diffuser to help Zeke relax indoors.

 

Some positives for Zeke, Ella and Jordan since starting him on medication to reduce anxiety: 

  • Medication has helped us teach him to be calm which means he can be included in baby time. He can interact with the baby instead of being separated.

 

  • Zeke can now watch TV with us at night without seeking our attention by mouthing at us

 

  • We had tried to implement things such as sitting behind a toddler gate when visitors arrived but before the medication he would try to jump the gate and we had no success. He still has room for improvement but now we can get him to sit and wait for small periods of time. 

 

  • When walking Zeke on lead it was almost impossible to get him to walk past houses with dogs barking in the windows or at the gates and now we can hold his attention long enough to walk past these houses with little disruption.

 

Preparing your dog for a new baby – Part 1

Undoubtedly, our dogs feel part of the family so it makes great sense to prepare them for the baby’s homecoming just as you would prepare existing children. This is important for both pet and baby’s welfare. Dogs that are properly prepared well in advance usually adjust to the new addition with few problems.

If your dog has never been around babies, it’s a good idea to begin exposing them to the sights, sounds and smells of a newborn BEFORE your little one arrives. By avoiding sudden changes to routine around the time of the birth, you reduce the risk of your pet becoming anxious. Some dogs are worried or even scared by babies so the preparation period focuses on creating positive emotional associations with babies. It can also highlight early warning signs that your dog may be scared of babies and prompt you to seek professional advice.

Often there is more time for dedicated canine cuddles when resting up before the birth. Then baby comes home and suddenly you’re too busy with bub to give your dog as much attention. It’s no longer okay for the dog to jump onto your lap because you have a baby to feed. Reduced predictability and control over social contact can lead to anxiety for your dog which can escalate if the dog has to be relegated to a separate area to allow bub to feed in peace.

Before you have your baby

It’s very important that your dog learns some basic cues before you have your baby. Seek help if necessary to train them to ‘Sit’, ‘Stay’, ‘Come’, ‘Drop it’ and ‘Go to your mat’ on a single calm cue. Use quiet praise to reinforce calm and quiet behaviour or reward them with a yummy chew when they are relaxing.

Try to work on issues like toilet training or having two dogs that play roughly or fight over food, toys or attention well before baby’s due date.

Always use positive reinforcement to encourage desirable behaviours and ignore or redirect undesirable behaviours. A rule of thumb is: think quietly ‘don’t do that’ and say in a cheerfully ‘do this instead’. There is no place for verbal reprimands or other forms of punishment in dog training, particularly around children. Confrontational methods can lead to aggression and children who grow up copying these methods are more at risk of being bitten. Positive training methods are effective for the entire family and
help the relationship between baby and dog to start and remain on a harmonious footing. Good things need to happen whenever baby is around.

Learning to read dog body language

The first step in preparing your dog for your baby, is to learn to read their canine body language as a guide to learning their emotional state.

Are they relaxed and inquisitive? Look for pricked ears, head cocked to the side, sniffing.

Are they uncomfortable? Look for yawning, lip licking, furrowed brow, eyes darting, sideways looks, ears flat to the sides, cowering, backing away, tense posture, shaking, panting, tail tucked or whining.

Are they frightened and at risk of being aggressive? Look for staring, freezing, baring teeth, curling a lip, ears flat back, raised hackles, rigid stance, stiff high tail, barking, growling, snapping or hiding.

The next step is to start to play recordings of baby sounds to your dog, while they are busy doing something they like. Start slowly and softly observing their body language. By playing the sounds at a level that’s comfortable for your dog (observe their body language) and combining this with fun games and positive rewards, your dog can learn a positive association with the sounds and reduce the risk of fear responses when bub comes home.

This process is called ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’ and is a way of changing your dog’s emotional response to baby from unsure/scared to feeling okay. A detailed description of such a program to help your dog cope with the sounds (CD included) and touch of a baby can be found in Lewis Kirkham’s book ‘Tell Your Dog You’re Pregnant’. This book also contains many tips to help you and your dog, for example distinguishing dog toys from baby toys and managing attention seeking behaviours like jumping up.

What’s that smell?

Familiarise your dog with new baby items before your baby is born by allowing the dog to sniff and investigate all the new items and smells. Reward desirable responses. Avoid leaving baby items lying around, however, if your dog heads off with a baby item, use the ‘drop it’ cue that you have already trained. When the dog relinquishes the item, replace it with a dog toy or treat. Don’t punish or reprimand your dog. Remember only good things occur in association with baby.

Routine is Key

Big changes in routine like bringing home a new baby can make a dog unsure or anxious. Make your interactions with your dog as consistent and predictable as possible. Cue them to sit for everything they want: food, pats, opening a door for them or clipping on a lead. Have all members of the household on board so your dog knows what to expect in routine situations. This reduces anxiety by giving your dog a sense of control over their environment. They can learn that particular (desirable) behaviours will receive
something nice.

Before baby is born, try to introduce a regular schedule for your dog that you can realistically follow after baby arrives. Keep regular play, walking and feeding schedules. We know you will be less available with your new family commitments but try to schedule two periods of 10 minutes a day when another person is monitoring bub so that you can enjoy this dedicated time with your dog. Talk to them, play with them, pet them. Set a quiet alarm to remind you it’s special doggy time.

Think about ways to smooth out your dog’s experience of you absence for the birth. Do you need to arrange for someone to house sit to avoid your dog becoming stressed by going to another house or boarding and then arriving home to a changed environment? Have a trial run to ensure your dog is comfortable with the arrangement.

 

Head to Part 2 of ‘Preparing your dog for a new baby’ HERE.

Preparing your dog for a new baby – Part 2

Once baby has arrived, but before you and bub go home, arrange to have some of your baby’s items taken home for your dog to smell under supervision, for example, a soiled nappy and something baby has worn. As the dog sniffs the items, reward them with treats. If they pick up the items, distract them and reward a desirable behaviour, for example following the cue to sit for a treat. Put the baby clothes on the bassinet and play some of the baby sounds to your dog. At the same time talk to them in an upbeat voice as you tell them about the baby and use your baby’s name.

What to expect

 So now you have prepared your dog to expect the sounds, smells and new routines associated with baby and it’s finally time to introduce them! Have someone take your dog for a walk a couple of hours before you arrive home to tire the dog slightly. Limit the number of people present at the first introduction to create a calm setting, however it’s handy to have someone to sit with baby in the car while your family initially greet your dog. This way, you can give your excited dog your calm attention without worrying about the baby being injured. Once your dog has calmed down, and you are able to relax, introductions may begin.

Whilst strictly controlling the amount of access the dog has to the baby, allow the dog to smell the baby. Reward calm behaviour with treats, pats and calm praise. Take it slowly and give your dog space to move away. Never force your dog to interact with the baby. If your dog is too excited, distract them away with food or play and try again when they are more settled. If the dog is uncomfortable or unsure around baby, separate your dog by putting them in their safe secure place and reward relaxed behaviour. There’s plenty of time for this introduction. It may help to restrict your dog to visual contact at a distance whilst you work on good things happening when baby is in sight.

Supervision

If your dog becomes highly focussed and repeatedly fixated on your baby’s sound or movement, they must be immediately and securely separated from baby. Veterinary behaviour advice must be sought.

No matter how gentle your dog is, never leave your baby unsupervised with your dog. If you need to leave the room, ensure you first safely and securely separate your baby and dog. This is also important when you take bub to visit friends and family with dogs and when baby sitters mind your baby. Maintain constant adult supervision such that you are no more than arm’s length from the baby if dog and baby are in the same room. When you are not available to supervise the dog must be separated from the baby by a secure barrier or locked door that cannot be breached by older children or unsuspecting visitors.

Ensure you still spend relaxing and enjoyable time with your dog after baby arrives to avoid your dog associating baby’s presence with being ignored. Make a point of rewarding calm and desirable canine behaviours. Throw your dog a tasty treat when they are relaxed or calmly tell them they are a ‘good dog’ while they enjoy a tasty chew on their mat.

Regular walking is an opportunity for fresh air and exercise that’s great for all the family. The more you exercise your dog with baby, the better their bond is likely to be. Seek advice if your dog is showing fearful behaviour on walks.

 

The toddler is a whole new ball game.

When bub becomes mobile, a whole new gamut of challenges arise and constant supervision is crucial. Dogs that aggressively protect their food, toys, resting place or owner attention can present great danger to the innocent baby or toddler. Watch out for the dog that freezes and stares when guarding one of these prized resources as this behaviour can precede a bite. Ensure your dog only accesses these items in a secure area away from bub and consult a behaviour veterinarian immediately.

Safe spaces

 Create an area where your dog can safely retreat for ‘me time’ and not be disturbed when resting. Ensure they cannot be cornered or crawled on by an exploring child. Every family dog needs to have a ‘safe place’ away from you where they can retreat undisturbed. Spend time creating a positive association with a resting area the other side of a secure barrier. Seek veterinary behaviour advice if your dog become anxious when separated from you or growls when disturbed from rest.

For many of us, growing up with a pet has been an experience of fun and friendship and with preparation and care, we can offer this to our children as well. Relax and look forward to the benefits of your extended family.

Some final thoughts:

  • Children who grow up with dogs are generally less self-centred, may have higher self-esteem, increased empathy and are more caring. There are many well documented health benefits both physical and mental.
  • Children share deep and lasting friendships with their pets through fun times and tough times.
  • 70% of all dog bites occur at home from a dog familiar to the child.
  • Causes of dog bites include: the dog is frightened of the baby or the noises or movements they make; the dog perceives the baby as a threat to valued resources like food, their resting area or their owner’s attention; the dog experiences conflict because they are no longer permitted to behave as he did before; the dog suffers from separation distress, noise phobias, pain or illness.
  • A small number of dogs may display predatory aggression towards a baby. If you are concerned or your dog shows stalking, strong focus, strange whining or unusual interest in the baby, seek assistance from a behaviour veterinarian.
  • Basic hygiene considerations include regularly deworming your dog to prevent parasite infection of the family; poop scoop the yard daily, and wash doggy bedding and vacuum very regularly. Always wash hands before meals, after cleaning the yard or touching your dog; ensuring the nappy bucket has a firm sealing lid and putting disposable soiled nappies out of reach of your dog and prevent your dog from licking baby’s face. This can be a dangerous behaviour as well as an easy way to spread worms.
  • Have a vet check any skin conditions or gastro issues in your dog promptly. Arrange for your dog to receive a full check-up well before the birth so that you can prepare for their health needs. Painful conditions including arthritis, ear infections, dental pain or itchy skin can reduce a dog’s tolerance to change or to toddler’s advances. Remember to store you dog’s medications in a child-proof cabinet.
  • Dog appeasement pheromone is a synthetic form of a calming pheromone that can have a relaxing effect on some dogs in stressful situations such as introducing a new baby. It comes in a diffuser, spray or collar and has no side effects for you or bub.

 

Some anxious dogs need veterinary behavioural help to treat anxiety before they can properly cope with the new family routine. Call us on (02) 6230 2223 to discuss our behaviour service or book an extended behaviour consultation.

How Dogs Think – Part 1

Have you ever wondered what is going on inside your dog’s head? To be honest, we can’t really know, however it’s an interesting subject for the dog lover to ponder.

Dogs are so much a part of our family that it can be hard to accept that they are not human and don’t think the same way we do. An understanding of how a dog’s brain works and the way they communicate helps us to recognise what they are feeling and how we can best provide for their needs.

Not only can we learn more about their motivations and body language, we can also learn to communicate in a way that makes sense to them.

Information is the common currency of dogs and their most valued resource.

In any new situation, you dog may seek to find out: Who’s in charge? What are the rules? Where do I fit in?

With new objects it seems to be: Can I eat it? Should I save it? Is it fun to play with? Will I mark it?

Always there will be the questions: Am I safe or unsafe? Unsure? Where are the exits? Where are the threats? What worked before?

Information represents control over their environment as they search for comfort and security in their world.

You will see your dog provoking their environment to get information about what’s going on. They want to see how others around them, people or other pets, will respond. This might take the form of barking, movement, touching, nudging or even aggression or humping.

How can we best communicate with our dog?

To communicate with dogs fairly and kindly, we need to focus on providing them with information that is relevant, unambiguous, consistent, reliable and accurate. It needs to make sense to them. Visual signals are more powerful than verbal ones.

Consistency is key, as is staying positive and friendly towards your companion. We choose to have pets so we can smile with love for them. Never feel you need follow outdated confrontational training methods. These only cause fear which impedes learning, dissolves trust and damages that precious bond with our mate.

Dogs communicate with body language which can often be misinterpreted. If they do not follow your cue, don’t be hasty to label them as stubborn. With hearing four times more sensitive than ours, it is likely they hear us loud and clear. They may be avoiding a situation they have learned to fear or just don’t understand.

Perhaps the most misunderstood suite of canine behaviours are the ‘fiddle’ body postures used to convey appeasement or conflicted emotions. These are normal behaviours like stretching, yawning, looking away, blinking, shaking off, lip licking, showing the whites of eyes. They are normal behaviours used out of context to diffuse a situation in the doggy world. Our pets will often use these signals in response to a reprimand and owners commonly misunderstand this as guilt.

We owe it to our dogs to try our best to understand the way they think. We need to credit them with their capabilities and avoid attributing them with understanding they don’t have. They are not people and cannot be expected to act like humans. There is no perfect dog (or perfect person for that matter). Expect them to have the reasoning ability and emotional development of a two year old child.

They are opportunists, impulsive and live mainly in the moment. They are not bound by morals or aware of right and wrong. In any particular situation, your dog’s behaviour is shaped by their memory of consequences of past actions in similar settings. They will choose to do what has worked for them before. They can experience fear, anxiety, excitement, frustration, rage, disappointment and social bonding. They are not capable of regret, guilt or spite. Nor can they be stubborn or vindictive.

Over the 40,000 years that we have co-evolved with dogs, they have learned to read our body language better than any other animal. Dogs are one of the very few animals that have the ability to follow the line of direction from our pointed finger to an object! They know when we can be trusted and when we are unpredictable and angry.

We can also learn a little of their own language to communicate with them. Turning our body side on, averting our gaze or crouching down reduces threat in their eyes. A play bow is recognised as an invitation to play.  However, don’t be tempted to yawn when they yawn or growl back as they are likely to feel intimidated.

In part two of “How Dog’s Think”, we will look at understanding how the normal brain works, and how dogs learn so that we can teach them to be good citizens and reduce undesirable behaviours.

We are so privileged to have dogs share our lives. They are deserving of the greatest respect.

 

 

How Dogs Think – Part 2

In part 1 of “How Dogs Think” we explored how dogs interpret their surroundings. Now we will look more at how the brain works and what that means for you when you are trying to manage your dog’s behaviour. We will also see how they learn.

Since the evolutionary path of dogs diverged from that of wolves around 40,000 years ago, they have evolved alongside humans and learned to read our body language. Natural selection has favoured domestic dogs with more amiable temperaments that equip them to share enduring bonds with us.

In the last few decades, pet dogs have largely moved from the backyard to the bedroom. They have become integrated into our families and as a result, there is a risk of attributing them with human qualities and emotions that they do not have. This has led to some misinterpretations of the emotion behind their behaviours. Through understanding how dogs see their world and the motivation behind behaviour problems, we can respond appropriately to dogs with undesirable behaviours and guide them to choose more acceptable options.

How do dogs perceive their world?

Dogs sense information from the world differently to us. Their sense of smell is exquisite. As their primary sense organ, it is not surprising that it commands a large percentage of their brain. They have been known to pick up the smell of a fingerprint on glass six weeks later!

As far as taste goes, if it smells good, it must taste good too and to our disgust, they find some putrid smells very attractive!

Remember before you raise your voice that your dog’s hearing is four times more sensitive than ours. It’s no wonder that thunder storms can be scary.

Dogs are attuned to movement. They see better at night and have poor colour definition. Blue and purple are seen well, whereas red, green and orange are not.

They are highly sensitive to touch, pressure and temperature. Pain can be more overwhelming for them, not knowing why it is there or when it will stop.

When do dogs learn?

Dogs learn from the consequences of previous actions. They make associations between things that occur together and above all, they always try to get the good stuff and avoid bad things. What’s more, they continue learning throughout life so you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!

Dogs have critical periods for learning and are more vulnerable to developing fear memories if they have a bad experience during these times.

You have most likely heard about the socialisation window for puppies between 3-12 weeks of age. Positive learning about novel and unfamiliar experiences during this time helps to create a well-adjusted dog.

Sexual maturity occurs between 6 and 8 months. Just as with humans, the brain is rapidly developing during this phase.

Social maturity between 12-24 months is another critical learning period when dogs are learning new ways to interact with their world.

Fear periods are critical times when a bad experience has a greater effect on future behaviour. These commonly occur around 10 weeks of age and between sexual maturity and social maturity. A bad experience, for example an intimidating interaction with a strange dog, during a fear period can lead to a persistent fear of unfamiliar dogs.

Geriatric dogs undergo similar changes with brain aging that people experience and this is another critical period when dogs are more vulnerable to developing anxiety disorders.

How do dogs learn?

Classical conditioning (remember Pavlov’s dog?) is learning by association. For example, when food arrives with the sound of a clicker, the clicker becomes associated with a pleasant reward. Before long the clicker by itself triggers a positive emotion and can be used to reward desirable behaviour alone. With this type of learning, the dog is not consciously offering a behaviour, however we can use classical conditioning to change their emotional response.

Operant conditioning is learning from the consequences of an action. What the dog gets or doesn’t get after offering a behaviour influences whether they will use that behaviour again in a similar situation. Positive reinforcement is the recommended form of operant learning and is the basis of rewards based training. Dogs and owners who train with this method LOVE training because it’s fun and strengthens the bond they share.

We can also modify behaviour by removing a reward to reduce the chance of a behaviour being repeated. For example our pup might jump up on us for attention. Completely ignoring jumping up (and that means NO attention – not looking at, speaking to, or touching the dog) can lead to cessation of the behaviour if you are consistent, however the behaviour may initially increase as a heightened effort to gain your attention and care must be taken not to reward the heightened behaviour.

It is less likely to frustrate your dog if instead, you reward an alternative desirable behaviour. Make your training mantra: ‘don’t do that, do this instead.’ For example give attention, but only after the cue to sit is followed by four paws and the bottom are on the ground.

Punishment is another form of operant conditioning, however it is not recommended. For a start it is aversive and damages the pet-owner bond. It is also very difficult to do correctly as the punishment needs to be immediate, consistent and sufficiently aversive (harsh) to stop the behaviour being tried again. Dogs are not deliberately trying to misbehave and never deserve to be punished. They are just doing what works for them to fulfil their canine needs. Besides, there is enough bad stuff in the world without adding negative emotions like fear into our relationship with our mate.

We know ourselves that fear memories are strong. They evoke a strong avoidance (flight) reaction in the future. If avoidance is not an option, an aggressive (fight) response may be the last resort. Dogs in this heightened aroused state cannot learn or engage in training.

Flooding refers to exposing the pet to something it fears at an intensity where it becomes overwhelmed and gives up. This is also known as learned helplessness and should be avoided at all costs. For example forcing a dog that fears other dogs to be close to unfamiliar dogs would be like putting a person with a spider phobia in a room full of spiders! Inducing shut down is not an acceptable way to change behaviour and is most likely to increase the fear emotion.

Dogs also learn by habituation, which is where they just get used to something of no consequence, for example a pup that grows up near a main road may be tolerant of traffic noise.

Using our knowledge of the way dogs learn, we can work with them to change their emotional experience and thus the behaviour they choose. We can desensitise dogs to a fear trigger by patiently exposing them to a low level of that trigger such that they no longer feel threatened. When they are distant enough from the trigger to be calm, we can pair the low level trigger with something positive, like a treat or a game. With time, a lot of patience and attention to body language we can bring about a change the dogs emotional experience from fearful to calm.

In Part 3 of ‘How Dogs Think’ we will explore how anxiety scrambles normal thinking, learning and processing. When our dog is anxious or distressed, we can help them by using positive methods to reduce this negative emotional state. Our goal is to foster calm so that they can learn behaviours that help them to feel safe. This is essential for their well-being.