WARWICK, RI -- These reader questions were answered at the conference of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) held April 20-22. IAABC members are consultants in dog, cat, parrot and horse behavior, who are available to help owners whose animals have behavior problems. Find a consultant near you at www.iaabc.org.
Q: I just got my dog from a rescue shelter, and he needs some help. He's somewhere between 3 and 5 years old, and was at a puppy mill before landing in the shelter. He freezes whenever someone picks him up, and he runs around in circles a lot. Any suggestions? -- A.S., Grayslake, IL
Dr. Sophia Yin, based in San Francisco, an applied animal behaviorist and author of "Perfect Puppy in 7 Days" (CattleDog Publishing, Davis, CA, 2011; $9.99), says to have your veterinarian rule out possible medical explanations, including ear infection or vestibular syndrome. The video may help your veterinarian rule out seizures to explain either or both behaviors. Freezing in place might be a result of pain. Also, pain, parasites, or anal gland issues might explain the spinning.
Assuming your dog checks out physically, Yin, says that freezing in place is likely related to fear. So, instead of reaching over your dog to pick him up, reach over him simply to drop treats. He'll quickly realize that someone leaning over him is nothing to worry about, but instead, a reason to celebrate.
As for those bursts of energy, Yin says the potential explanations are varied.
"It might be that your dog is excited and receives attention (or at least once did) for running in circles because family members thought it was funny, or that your dog is truly not receiving enough exercise and has developed that pattern as an outlet for pent-up energy."
If the running in circles might be described as tail chasing, there's no medical explanation, and the behavior can't easily be interrupted, the problem may be a true compulsive behavior, which calls for a visit to your veterinarian.
Q: I'm the loving owner of five cats. My question is about one named Jordan; she drags items around the house, howling at the top of her lungs. She'll haul out whatever interesting things she finds -- dental floss packages, toothbrushes and socks are favorites -- and deliver them to me as gifts. Please don't suggest that I stow all these items. Jordan is clever and can open cabinets and drawers. Why does she do this, and how can I curtail this activity? -- J.H., St. Petersburg, FL
A: "This is a predator behavior," says Urbana, IL-based behavior consultant Linda Case, author of "Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding our Two Best Friends" (Delmar Publishing, Clifton Park, NY, 2009; $81). Just as an outdoor cat may return home with a bird or a mouse (often still alive and kicking), Jordan is offering gifts from her indoor "hunt." In all likelihood, she's yowling out of excitement.
Case suggests enriching Jordan's environment -- which will also benefit your other cats. Increasing the number of toys isn't nearly as important as rotating the toys your cats do like, so there are always novel toys being added (everything old is new again). Also, Case suggests hiding food delivery toys and having your cats "hunt" for them to get at least some of their daily food. These toys are made for dry food; if you feed moist, put a dollop into some plastic tops (the kind you'd use to keep the food fresh) and urge your kitties to "hunt" for these.
"Another idea is to clicker train your cat to do things -- jumping from one chair to another or sitting on command. Clicker training is wonderful mental stimulation," says Case. Jordan may need more stimulus than most cats. Also, it's very important to interact with Jordan daily using a fishing pole toy or Cat Dancer.
Place novel (cat safe) materials around the house: paper bags, empty boxes, etc. And create your own toys: wine corks, plastic tops from milk cartons, etc. Offering lots of activities and mental exercise may satisfy Jordan's yearning for stimulation, allowing her to taper off hunting socks!
Q: When people visit our home, the dog nibbles at their ankles. How can we stop this? -- S.H., Cyberspace
A: "Dogs may do this for many reasons," says dog trainer and certified dog behavior consultant Brenda Aloff, of Midland, MI. "Does this feel like play? If you are comfortable that it's play, then attempt to redirect the behavior. The second the dog looks like it will go for someone's ankles (or even better, before this happens), toss treats or a toy in the other direction. If you do this consistently, the dog will learn to go the other way when people walk by. For better control, you might even leash your dog when people visit."
Aloff, author of "Puppy Problems? No Problem! A Survival Guide for Finding and Training Your New Dog" (Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee, WA, 2011; $39.95), points to a great lesson which applies to many behaviors: "To modify behavior, you must prevent rehearsal of the undesired behavior. The more the new desired behavior is practiced, the more quickly it will create a new neural pathway in the brain."
If your dog isn't merely playing but demonstrating aggression, for now, leash the pet when you have company, or even put the dog in another room so everyone stays safe. Seek hands-on help from a dog trainer or certified dog behavior consultant.
(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2010 Westridge Drive, Irving, TX 75038. Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)