Dog trainer Laura Garber helped TODAY's Natalie Morales train her adopted dog Zara, and now she's answering your questions! This week, Garber offers advice on what to do about aggressive behavior when cuddling on the couch, visiting a dog you haven't seen in years and more.
Q:My 5-year-old male chow is a loving and happy boy, but I dread every Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve. For some reason, the popping of firecrackers terrifies him. The first time this happened was two years ago when he hid under the computer desk and would not come out. I feel for him! What can I do to calm him as July 4th is just around the corner?— Karin from Las Vegas
Update 6/26/12: Rich from Newport News, Virginia wrote to remind me of the use of such equipment as the Thundershirt for firework-phobia, which he said was nothing short of miraculous with his dog. Indeed there are many techniques and aids that may help your dog with his anxiety, including Rescue Remedy, Dog-Appeasing Pheromone, even mutt muffs, which will mute the noises a bit. Each dog is different and will respond differently to each approach. For completeness, I should have suggested these to you as I have to other readers who have asked how to help their anxious dogs. You might read my article Calming an Anxious Dog for more ideas.
Meanwhile, thanks, Rich, for sharing your experiences and insights. Hopefully something will help Karin’s dog this Fourth of July!
Original post: Unfortunately, this is not at all uncommon; it's a difficult time of year for these poor dogs. I would suggest that you contact your vet and ask whether he is a candidate for Xanax, a fast-acting anti-anxiety medication that is often used to treat dogs who suffer from thunderstorm and fireworks phobias.
Hope things go well for him!
Q: I have a large, mixed-breed rescue who is going on 4 years of age. She enjoys lounging on the couch with us, usually with her head in your lap if you are sitting up or over your legs if you are laying down. In the last few months, she has started growling at us or snarling when we pet her while she is cuddling on the couch. We stop the petting and firmly tell her to get down. She enjoys being petted and played with in all other aspects of the day, but later in the evening she seems a bit cranky. Is this the right way to resolve this behavior? We enjoy playtime as well as cuddle time so we would like to be able to keep doing this in the future. — Jen from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
I would prohibit your dog from access to the couch entirely. The problem with allowing her the access and then removing her when she reacts this way is that she has opportunity to practice this behavior and experience these feelings over and over again.
To help her get used to this new routine, place a dog bed near the couch and reinforce her lying on her dog bed. For tips on how to train her to do this, take a look at my article “Getting Your Dog Café-Ready” and simply apply the technique to this context — her dog bed next to the couch.
If you’re saying that it is only in the evening that she gets growly and that at other times of day she is accepting of cuddling when she’s resting, then it could be that she is most tired in the evening and gets moody when disturbed from sleep. This is not unusual. Teach her to move off of her bed if you need her to. Make sure you give her plenty of warning if you must disturb her, and try not to jostle her unexpectedly. This just might not be the time of day when she feels her most affectionate!
Q: Our 9-year-old Lab has become terrified of our cellphones. We tried changing the notification sounds, but that didn't help. When she hears or sees a cellphone she starts shaking and leaves the room. This started about 6 months ago. It keeps getting worse, even to the point that when she hears a cellphone on TV, she starts to shake. We now keep our phones on vibrate but we can't even pick them up when she is around, and of course everyone else carries one too. Help! — Katie from Akron, Pennsylvania
Poor old gal! Whenever an older dog experiences a sudden behavior change like this, the first thing I suggest is a visit to the vet. For instance, she could be experiencing a hearing loss that makes certain ranges uncomfortable to her and, because she’s associated the phone with this unpleasant noise, now even a silent phone upsets her.
If she gets a clean bill of health, suggest that your vet contact a veterinary behaviorist for you who might be able to offer some guidance or suggestions. It sounds to me like this has a physical as well as a behavioral component to it, and a veterinary behaviorist can come at it from both angles. Good luck! I hope you can get to the bottom of it and relieve your old friend!
Q: My 8-year-old Chihuahua has this strange compulsion of licking my bedsheets in the spot where she sleeps for 30 minutes to an hour before going to sleep. She has actually stained several sets of sheets doing this. She's been doing this ever since I adopted her 3 years ago. It's super annoying (not to mention expensive). Why on earth does she do this, and how can I get her to stop? — Amy from Houston, Texas
Hiya, Amy! Compulsive behaviors like this tend to occur in insecure dogs, so raising your voice to stop her is likely to make the behavior worse.
Training may help your dog gain some confidence, and increasing her exercise and mental stimulation (by way of training and stuffed puzzle toys like the Kong) may tire her out enough to shorten or eliminate this habit before bedtime.
Finally, put a dog bed or mat on the spot where she sleeps on the bed. Then at least her licking will not ruin your sheets!
Q: I want to visit a neighbor’s dog I used to walk. My neighbors had to move and they found a very good home for him. I haven't seen him in over a year because I wasn't sure if my visit would confuse him, but I really miss him. He was a shelter dog so I do not know how many “families” he's had. Will I disrupt his life and bring back memories and upset him if I visit? I was assured he is very happy with this new family, so I don't want to do anything wrong.
— Cathy from Pasadena, California
I think a visit from you would be wonderful for your canine friend! I have developed good friendships with many client dogs and shelter dogs I’ve worked with over the years, and they are nothing but thrilled and excited to see me on the occasions when we reconnect. Dogs live in the present.
They have a magically adaptive nature and do not look back with regret and longing the way we do. He has more than enough room to love his current family and enjoy the visit of an old friend!
Q: In March, our boxer dog, who was barely a year old, passed away with heart disease. We have another dog who is a beagle/mutt mix about 2 years old. He took the loss of his playmate very hard. A few weeks ago we found another boxer at the pound and just had to save him. We brought him home and introduced him to our other dog. The boxer was happy, but our little dog was not. We keep them separated unless there are two people in the room to make sure they don't fight. Both dogs are male and will be neutered in the next few weeks. I am hoping that this will calm them both down. I guess my question is, do you have a special way to get the “dominant” dog to accept the other? We love our animals and there is no way I could let the boxer go back to the animal shelter. We just want them to live together in peace. — Amy from Ashland, Kentucky
I’m so sorry for the loss of your boxer but so happy to hear that you decided to rescue your next dog. Congratulations on your new canine family member!
Let me start by saying that you need both dogs to be neutered and, even then, it may take several weeks, and even up to a few months, for the hormones to leave their systems. This is only adding to the confusing “soup” of their relationship.
I do not subscribe to the “dominance” model of dog training and dog relationships. If anything, I look at this as a resident dog who is being forced to accept an arranged marriage that he had no part in choosing. This new boxer is not an instant replacement for his lost friend. Besides that, his routine is upside down, and he must share his human partners with this total stranger.
Last week, Susan from Woodbridge, Virginia asked a similar question about her dog Bob and the family’s new puppy. While Susan’s new dog was a puppy, the approach is nonetheless the same. The more bad interactions your dogs have with each other, the more damage the relationship sustains. So enlist the aid of a certified dog trainer as soon as you can. The sooner the better!
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is a dog trainer and behavior specialist. She is the owner of