Category Archives: Training tips

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.

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.

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 3

In Part 1 and 2, we explored the way dogs perceive their world and what motivates their behaviours. We looked at how they learn and how to best communicate with them.  Now we will look at how the normal brain functions and what happens in the anxious dog’s brain.

In the normal brain, information about the environment is gathered through the senses and processed in part of the brain called the thalamus. From here the information travels at lightning speed to the amygdala or “danger brain” to enable rapid reactions to life threatening situations. The information travels to the cortex or “thinking brain” more slowly. We have all experienced this. For example, we jump away from a stick lying on the ground before our brain computes that it’s not really a snake.

Many behaviour issues in dogs stem from physical changes in the brain associated with anxiety. It is essential that we recognise when anxiety is causing a behaviour problem in order to seek the right help for our mate.

What happens in the anxious brain?

In the anxious dog, the danger brain hijacks the thinking brain and threats are perceived that are not real. Their amygdala is larger than normal and fires too readily and more strongly. There are also changes in the neurochemistry of the anxious brain.

So rather than being naughty, anxious dogs are physically unable to perceive situations logically and calmly with their thinking brain. Instead they react with fear behaviours and anticipate that unfamiliar situations will be frightening. They are unable to relax and cope calmly with their world.

It’s so important to understand that the brain of an anxious pet is abnormal. These are ‘special needs’ individuals with seriously compromised welfare. Not only is their experience of life negative and scary, anxiety also reduces the function of the immune system, makes pain seem worse, causes physical exhaustion and a shorter life. Importantly, it reduces the dog’s ability to think and learn better ways to cope.

How do I know that my dog is anxious?

First recognise what our dog’s body language is telling us.

There are four types of behaviours that communicate to us that a dog is frightened:

Flight response: Here your dog seeks to increase the distance from, avoid or hide from the threat.

Fight response: They may bark, growl, lunge and snap to make the threat go away.

Freeze response: They stay very still or walk as though in slow motion.

Fiddle responses: These are normal behaviours seen out of context, for example yawning when not tired, lip licking when not eating, stretching when not waking, shake off when not wet, scanning when not in danger.

It is important that we read the signs of anxiety in order to recognise and respond to fear behaviours in a way that helps our dogs cope. In time this helps them to adopt a more calm emotional state.

To understand how our dog is feeling, think about emotional states as three zones:

Green zone: This is where they are happy and relaxed. They can think, remember and learn. The behaviour is considered, ‘mature’ and predictable.

Orange zone: Here they are less able to think, remember and learn. Their behaviour is becoming more unpredictable and reactive. There is a risk of triggering quickly into the ‘red’ zone. This area is the most familiar for anxious dogs.

Red zone: ‘fight or flight’ behaviour. The behaviour is reactive and self-protective. It is more ‘immature’ and unpredictable. This emotional level can lead to aggression or desperate attempts to escape a yard to find an owner.

When your dog is in an anxious state, they are less able to respond to cues or learn new responses, as they are focused on self-preservation or what threats lurk elsewhere. Animals with anxiety live in a state of increased arousal (orange zone) and are quick to react and escalate to aggression when they feel threatened (red zone). This low threshold for reactivity, means that they are more likely to respond to innocuous triggers, for example another dog being walked past. They are less able to cope with people/children and dogs that also display reactive or confronting behaviour.

What can I do for my anxious dog?

Behaviour problems that stem from anxiety are not a training issue and should not be referred to trainers. These dogs are suffering from a medical problem and whilst training can help, they need a veterinary diagnosis and treatment. Your patience and commitment will be essential to manage their special needs and helping them learn calm ways.

Despite the fact that anxiety is a medical problem, there is a common misconception that anxious dogs just need discipline to show them who is boss to stop them behaving inappropriately. Punishment is particularly detrimental for anxious dogs and can make their behaviour worse in the long term.

Dogs – especially anxious dogs – need calm, kind and consistent handling to help them feel safe and secure in a stable environment. Consistency is the key as it minimises the stress associated with change.

We often attribute human emotions, thoughts and motivations to our pet’s behaviour and become very frustrated when they do not behave as expected or desired. Pets do not think in words and only know those few words that have been trained by association and reward. The way forward lies in no longer looking at what they should ‘stop’ doing but rather what the right behaviour would look like and how to teach him to do that. “Don’t do that, do this instead.”

Dogs have a very different view of the world than the one we assume. They are observers and live mainly in the moment. They don’t spend time plotting to do bad things or making grudges. They make decisions based on past events and learning. Their most pressing needs are finding and keeping food, staying in their safe social group, having some control over what happens to them and the ability to escape harm and fear. They quickly learn what works for them to reduce exposure to threats. Anxious aggression is not about being naughty or angry. It is fear behaviour, an attempt to avert perceived threats to keep themselves safe.

Where can I get help?

At Hall Veterinary surgery, we provide behaviour consultations for pets with behaviour problems. We recognise that these issues can have a huge impact on quality of life for both pet and owner.

Starting with a questionnaire, we discuss your observations at length and drill down for the underlying triggers and motivation for the behaviour. We then carefully craft a treatment plan that reduces opportunities to practice problem behaviours whilst teaching calm alternative responses through positive reinforcement.  In some cases, medication is helpful to reduce anxiety and lower arousal levels.

Anxious pets will always spend more time in the orange and red zones than a dog without anxiety. However, over time, their emotional responses will become more normal and both pet and owner can live a more calm and relaxed life and thrive in each other’s company.

When Harry’s Home Alone – managing separation anxiety

One would have thought that Harry, the adolescent Cocker spaniel had all he could want to be happy with life. His loving owner, Jill walked him twice a day, a definite highlight for Harry who exuberantly greeted every person and dog he saw. He enjoyed mental enrichment through fun training for treats daily and went to puppy day care for extra play time each week. At night he slept in his bed near Jill’s and she had set up a comfy spot in the main living area for him when she went out.

However, Jill became concerned that Harry was not as happy as he could be. With the upheaval of the house renovations, it became more noticeable that Harry was not coping when she went out. He had become destructive and barked when he was left alone. He would whine when Jill went out of sight inthe next room. Harry was constantly seeking attention by nudging Jill and jumping up. Jill tried not to reinforce this behaviour by ignoring it, however he would nag her more and mouth her to gain attention. Harry paced restlessly and only relaxed when he was in close contact with Jill. It got to the point that he was so anxious when alone that he would not touch his food or water until Jill came home.

When Jill brought Harry in for a behaviour consultation, it was no surprise when he was diagnosed with separation distress, a form of anxiety disorder. Harry was not being naughty. Rather his behaviour was a sign that he was anxious and distressed when alone. His pacing, barking and destructive behaviours were his efforts to find Jill and cope with the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety. Dogs suffering from separation distress can show a range of signs. Some may injure themselves or property in a desperate attempt to escape and find their owner whilst others suffer in inconspicuous silence, trembling and salivating until the owner returns. Sadly, many that vocalise their anxiety are labelled as nuisance barkers and fitted with aversive collars that trigger with each bark and increase anxiety.

As for humans who suffer from anxiety, our canine companions can experience ‘amygdala hijack’, when the danger-brain works overtime and perceives threats that are not real. Rather than functioning in a calm and logical way, Harry’s brain reacted fearfully whenever he was alone. Anxiety is a physical disease linked with an imbalance of certain neurochemicals in the brain and tends to become worse over time. Every time Harry reacted anxiously to a perceived threat or panicked about being left alone, the neural pathways for the fear reaction become strengthened.

Like any behaviour problem, genetics, past learning and the present situation all contribute to the cause.

Treatment is aimed at:

1. Managing the imbalance in Harry’s brain with anti-anxiety medication and calming pheromones.

2. Improving resilience and fostering a calm emotional state through behaviour modification exercises that positively reward calm.

3. Managing Harry’s environment to help him to feel safe when alone.

Video footage is often helpful to assess the response to treatment by revealing the pet’s body language when they are alone.

Jill embraced the treatment plan with a strong commitment to help dear Harry become a happier dog. It’s 16 months further on now and Jill is very happy with his progress.

Some comments from Jill

Harry is not the first dog to be a large part of my life but he is the first to display behavioural problems. He was destructive, continuous barking and unable to settle down or relax.

After Harry’s anxiety diagnosis, the plan included medication to help alleviate his stress and a job for me to modify his environment and my actions. This was and still is a trial and error arrangement with initially error being the main result. Over time I have come to understand Harry’s anxiety so that now his good days (less anxiety) far outweigh his bad days (anxiety driven).

I am still learning and will continue to learn what causes his anxiety. For example, yesterday I received a phone call which resulted in me immediately leaving him alone and being absent for about 4 hours. I returned to a very anxious Harry. I had previously learnt that Harry needs more notice before being left alone at home, unfortunately I didn’t consider this yesterday.

Harry is worth the commitment to make his life as happy as I can, he is definitely a ‘keeper’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Get off on the right paw with your new puppy!

So, you have an adorable new addition to your family. Here are some tips to help you raise a happy-go-lucky canine citizen.

Early positive socialisation is vital

Early and appropriate socialisation is key. This is the time puppies learn to accept the myriad of objects and creatures, including humans in their world. Missing out on positive exposure to novel situations when under 12 weeks can lead to shy or even aggressive dogs. However, if socialising your puppy is performed appropriately, then your pet will become a confident, friendly and well-rounded member of your family. Puppies usually go into their new homes at around six to eight weeks old, so it’s vital to introduce your puppy to as wide a variety of people, situations, and animals as soon as possible. Do not wait until 16 weeks to start socialising your puppy – this is too late.

Ensure socialisation encounters are varied and positive. Avoid overwhelming situations that could result in a fearful association at this sensitive age and be mindful of where you take your puppy and what animals it meets before its vaccinations are completed.

Socialising your puppy with people

Introduce your puppy to as wide a range of people as possible. This should include people of all shapes, sizes, ages and races. Gradually increase the number of interactions as the pup gets older and becomes more confident.

If you learn to read dog body language you will be able to judge how they are coping with novel interactions and situations. Is the tail on a happy plane or are they frightened – with ears back, tail low, cringing or looking away.

Passing your puppy to a stranger, or having a person bend over, hug or stare at your pup can be frightening to the pup. Instead, have people squat down to their level, turn slightly side on and give your puppy small treats to invite interaction rather than force it upon them.

Be proactive and try to anticipate potential bad encounters. Puppies are inquisitive and inexperienced and can get themselves into bother very easily. Keep a close eye on them during their socialisation period to help avoid potentially stressful situations.

Socialising with other dogs

It’s vital that your puppy socialises with other dogs as well as humans. Introduce your puppy to other dogs outdoors and on neutral territory. Ensure that both dogs are kept on their leads so they can easily be removed from any potentially uncomfortable circumstances. Avoid dog parks where an uncontrolled approach can frighten your little one.

Let the dogs see each other from a distance and allow them to approach each other at their own pace and keep a close eye on the body language of both pets. If it looks like either dog is uncomfortable, then simply remove your puppy from the situation and attempt to reintroduce them more slowly later.

If you are introducing your puppy to a new dog in your home then you should also start slowly and talk to our behaviour team about a plan to set up for success.

Puppies, as with humans, learn social behaviour from their elders. Older dogs may not like your puppy putting their teeth and paws all over them unless invited to do so, and will let your puppy know when they have crossed the line by ‘telling them off’. Let them do this, but make sure that it does not go too far. Stop your puppy from trying to go back for more when the older dog has had enough.

Bear in mind that puppies often won’t be fully vaccinated yet, so make sure you only introduce them to healthy vaccinated dogs. Current vaccines provide a high level of protection for your pup from 10 weeks of age, however care should be taken to minimise potential exposure to disease before the vaccine course is completed.

Socialisation classes

Finally, it is highly recommended to take your puppy to a well-managed socialisation class. They may be settling in just fine with family, however this is a great opportunity for you to learn about puppy behaviour and socialise your little one to their vet’s office as well as playing fun games. Ask us about our puppy preschool classes!