Q: Our German shepherd will sit next to my husband while he eats or watches TV, with her ears back, snarling and whining. Why? She never does this with me. Does she want more attention, or is she trying to dominate him? – C.B., Cyberspace
A: It’s very possible your dog is seeking attention. However, she’s not trying to dominate anyone. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ilana Reisner, of Philadelphia, explains, “Dogs aren’t driven to be socially dominant to people. It’s an old theory, and today we know it doesn’t apply.” For more information on dominance, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a position statement on the topic, www.avsabonline.org/uploads/position_statements/dominance_statement.pdf.
If your dog growled just once, and someone (most notably, your husband) responded, the attention-seeking behavior might have been reinforced. Or maybe it’s reinforced frequently (you don’t mention how often you or your husband respond).
It’s odd that your dog is growling and whining at the same time. Both are signals that solicit attention from people, but they carry very different meanings. Also, Reisner wonders if what you’re observing is actually a submissive grin, an appeasement signal typically offered to other dogs. If you have a smartphone, videotape the behavior so your veterinarian can see what’s going on.
In any case, Reisner suggests giving your dog a place to munch on a chewie, perhaps in the same room as the dinner table – but on the other side of the room. For example, you could stuff low fat cream cheese or peanut butter into a Kong toy (there are many varieties). Or just teach your dog to lie on a mat when you’re eating or watching TV. A dog trainer, certified dog behavior consultant or veterinary behaviorist could assist with training.
Q: Our 6-year-old Bichon/poodle is the sweetest girl. The problem is, she dislikes other dogs immensely. When she sees another dog, she pulls on her leash and goes crazy. Do you think a Thundershirt would help? – J.B., Cyberspace
A: It’s impossible for me to tell for certain why your dog is so aggressive toward other dogs. Based only on your description, Chicago-based veterinary behaviorist Dr. John Ciribassi says you definitely need help from a professional veterinary behaviorist or dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement, or a certified dog behavior consultant.
If you’re using a choke collar, throw it out. Instead use a harness. And never punish your dog for acting aggressive, as embarrassed as you may be.
Meanwhile, do the best you can to not allow your dog to engage in such aggressive behavior. Teach her to focus on a favorite treat like liver snacks (very small portions, please) or a toy. Teach this focus exercise by saying “look” or “watch this” indoors without distraction, then take the cue and food or toy outdoors.
Try the exercise with few distractions before you attempt to use it with another dog in sight. Do your best to maintain a comfortable distance from other dogs. Then, gradually lessen the distance over many months, all the while having your dog focus on the treat or toy. Getting the timing right is challenging, another reason for seeking professional help.
As for a Thundershirt, Ciribassi likes the product (which resembles a T-shirt or sweater for dogs) and agrees that it can ease a pet’s separation anxiety over worries about thunderstorms. Aggression, however, is generally not a classic anxiety-based issue.
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