Dog trainer Laura Garber helped TODAY's Natalie Morales train her adopted dog Zara, and now she's answering your questions! This week, Garber addresses dilemmas about dogs with such issues as the onset of blindness, obsessive behavior toward shadows, and walking on tiled floors.
Q:My dog Winston is a 10-year-old dachshund who obsesses over shadows and lights. He licks the floor and whines when he sees them on the floors or walls. This behavior has become quite annoying when I have guests over, especially during evening hours. How can I help him stop his behavior?
— Alisa from Jacksonville Beach, Florida
Poor Winston! I’m so glad you’ve asked about this! Shadow-chasing can become a compulsive behavior and, sadly, it can be intensified by the use of a laser-light toy. I’d love to yell from the rafters to anyone who uses this common toy: “DON’T DO IT WITH YOUR DOG!” While cats enjoy it and it seems not to cause compulsive behavior in them, it often does in dogs.
The other problem can be that people inadvertently strengthen such behaviors in the beginning. Shadow chasing and tail chasing might seem funny and entertaining to the human family at first but, as you well know, it’s not the least bit funny when it becomes compulsive. So make sure that everyone in the family is on the same page and is committed to working on it.
The two things you want to be able to do are to call Winston away from the shadow and teach him something else to do instead. Use hand-targeting to call Winston to you; then teach him to hold a down-stay beside you. Alternatively you can teach Winston a “go to place” behavior, sending him to his bed and using a Manners Minder to reinforce him remotely. You might also find a certified trainer in your area helpful.
Clearly this is not something you can work on during a dinner party, so for those occasions, put Winston in another room that is quiet and dark where he can enjoy a tasty stuffed toy and then take a nice nap.
Such compulsive behaviors are often indicative of an underlying anxiety disorder, so, depending on the severity, you might want to discuss pharmacological intervention with your vet in tandem with the training you’re doing.
And, finally, it goes without saying, the old adage: “A tired dog is a good dog.” Make sure Winston is getting enough physical exercise and mental stimulation.
Q: Our 11-year-old cocker spaniel has slowly lost her eyesight to glaucoma. What can we do to help her transition to a life in the dark?
— Jennifer from Newport News, Virginia
The wonderful thing is that animals seem to take physical impairment in their stride so much better than we do. With a little extra care from you, she will no doubt adapt very well. Here are some things I’d suggest:
- Often we think our dogs are trained to voice commands, but we are really using hand signals and gestures to get our messages across to them. For instance, when you ask her to go down, do you point to the floor at the same time? Soon she will not be able to rely on these visual gestures, so while she still has some sight remaining, help her bone up on her training so you are still able to communicate with her when she is sightless. Make sure to train such cues as “wait”, “step up/step down”, “easy”, “left/right” and so on.
- Put bells on other family pets (as well as on the human family members) so that she knows where everyone is as they move about.
- Talk to your dog. Your voice is soothing and reassuring to her when she is uncertain. Let her know when you are about to touch her so she is not startled.
- Keep her landscape — the furniture, her bed, her bowls — in the same place. Moving them around will disorient her.
- Make sure to pooch-proof your home and yard for any sharp objects that could hurt her if she walked into them. If necessary, get down on your own hands and knees to see things from her perspective.
- Use scent and sound to mark landmarks for her. A wind chime may let her know where the door to the yard is; aromatherapy oils on vertical surfaces can mark passageways for her.
- Gate off any stairwells so that she does not try them on her own.
- In general, older dogs can have difficulty navigating slippery floor surfaces, like wood or tile, due to their reduced mobility. Use carpet runners and nonskid adhesive strips so that slipping will not further compound your dog’s ability to move about.
- Keep as much of your routine as possible. Take her for walks on leash; spend time grooming her and massaging her; give her fun toys. She can and should remain mentally and physically active.
Research online for more suggestions. There are some great resources out there, including Blinddogs.net. Among other things, they suggest that, for dogs with glaucoma, switching to the use of a harness for walks will cause less stress to your dog’s neck and eyes. What a great idea!
Q: We have a 7-year-old Boston terrier, and he is pretty much perfect in every way, but he is a licker! He licks his paws, the arm of the chair, and any human skin he can reach. He's always been a licker, but it seems to get worse with age. He is a very lovable and friendly little guy, but the licking needs to stop. Do you have any idea how we can curb his obsession? We've tried saying no and closing his mouth, and nothing has deterred him. — Deb from Devils Elbow, Missouri
Licking such as this is the behavior of an insecure dog. Using punishment like saying no or holding his mouth closed will only intensify his insecurity. Instead you must help him to gain confidence and reinforce him for other behaviors, behaviors that are not licking. So, for instance, if you’re sitting quietly on the couch and he’s beside you, ask him to lie down quietly and then give him yummy little treats for holding a down-stay. Check out my article Getting Your Dog Café-Ready for step-by-step instructions.
Over time, you will teach him what sitting on the couch together looks like. It looks like the two of you sitting there quietly and calmly and not like him licking you to distraction. Hope that helps!
Q: Our 3-year-old terrier mix barks at everything and wakes us up three or four times a night, wanting to go outside. How can we get her to sleep through the night?
— Vera from Danville, Illinois
You must be exhausted!
So certainly I’d suggest that she needs plenty of exercise. Terriers are, as a rule, high-energy, athletic, agile dogs, even the small varieties. We tend to think that small dogs don’t need much exercise by virtue of their size, but this is not true when it comes to terriers!
Also I’d suggest employing the use of puzzle toys (like the Kong — for some stuffing recipes, check out my handout) for meals and snacks. These, along with training, even tricks training, provide mental challenges that will also sap a dog’s energy level.
Make sure that you provide her some exercise in the evening so that hopefully she’ll feel more tired at bedtime. If she is riled up after your evening sojourn, then do some training with her to bring her into a calmer state, then off to bed.
Finally, if you suspect that she needs to go to the potty during the night, take her outside on leash, allow her to relieve herself, and then return her to bed immediately. If she’s allowed any time to gallivant and play, then she’s learning that excursions by moonlight are very fun. So just a quick potty break and back to bed.
If all else fails, talk to your vet about the use of melatonin to help regulate your dog’s sleep patterns.
Q: I have a 5-year-old Maltese poodle mix who has been the best dog since day one. About a month ago I had to go out of town for a weekend and my daughter, with whom he is very familiar and has stayed with before, watched him for me. Now he refuses to walk on the tile in our house. I thought it might be that his nails were too long, so we took him in and had them trimmed, but he still won’t budge. All but one room in our home is tiled, so he just sits in there and stares at us. He’ll go outside if I open the door so he has a straight shot and doesn’t have to stop. I’ve had to move his food or he won’t eat or drink anything. I have tried to bribe him outdoors with food, toys, sitting with him on the tile floor, but as soon as I put him down he runs straight to the carpet. I’m at my wits end. Please help! — Susan from St. Petersburg, Florida
OK, that’s just odd! I’m so curious to know what might have happened! Well, regardless, here's what I’d do. Clearly, he’s lost his mojo when it comes to slippery surfaces, so we need to help reassure him by making the problem easier for him and challenging him gradually. In the most necessary rooms of the house, like the kitchen where his bowls once were, I’d put down some carpet squares, like stepping stones. As he gets more and more confident navigating his way around these rooms, see if you can start reducing the number of squares so that some of his footfalls may be on the tile. Perhaps play his favorite games with a squeaky in these areas. Of course, try treats too.
One note of observation: We often become so insistent that a dog face his fear that we can make it more of an issue than it needs to be. What I mean is: We get so focused on moving him forward, farther and farther onto the tile, that he can get suspicious of our motives. Instead, if he takes a single step on the tile, call him back to the rug, then back onto the tile, then back to the rug — over and over again. Before you know it, he’ll think nothing of it. Make sense?
Do you have a dog training question for Laura? Submit it here!