Dog's aggression likely based on fear

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Q: We've had our 5-year-old Great Dane since he was a puppy. I took him through puppy class, obedience call, agility class, private instruction and to my office daily. At the age of 3, he began to get protective of me, lunging and growling at other people. He stopped going to the office. Now, he's gotten worse, even lunging at a neighbor who put a hand over the fence, and he once jumped on a passerby. I'm very concerned and fear I may have to euthanize this dog. Any advice? -- D.M., Cyberspace

A: Please don't give up hope, says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Valarie Tynes, of Fort Worth, TX.

Based on your description, you've everything right: early socialization (assuming experiences were positive from the dog's perspective) lots of training (assuming no punishment-based training was involved), and even extending that socialization by taking your dog to the office -- an experience which should have been good for you, as well as your dog.

"Odds are, your dog has fear-based aggression," says Tynes, a contributor to "Decoding Your Dog," by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and myself, and due out in January (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2014; $27). "There may actually be a genetic predisposition to explain the behavior. In other words, you've likely done nothing wrong."

Tynes adds, "Meanwhile, the dog began to lunge at other people, who, of course, backed off, and that reinforced the dog. Also, you may be inadvertently reinforcing by offering cues to the dog, expecting the worst and tightening up on that leash as someone approaches."

The good news is, your dog has only lunged and not bitten anyone.

"Certainly, this is serious, particularly with such a large dog," says Tynes. She suggests consulting a veterinary behaviorist (find one at http://www.dacvb.org), who may prescribe an anti-anxiety drug and can offer a specific behavior modification plan.

Q: My Maltese constantly barks at other dogs in the park. Since he has no fear of other dog, I worry that another dog will bite his head off. Mickey also constantly barks when he sees anyone walk by the house. My neighbors are complaining. What should I do? -- V.N., St. Petersburg, FL

A: It's a good bet that your dog is hardly fearless, but instead, is afraid of other dogs. Think about this: Mickey barks and then the approaching dog goes away. The strategy works. Mickey barks at whatever is outside the window. Again, the person or dog appears to respond by going away.

Certified dog behavior consultant Jean Donaldson, founder of the Academy for Dog Trainers in San Francisco, CA, says the problem might be as easy as your dog feeling constrained on a leash.

"Having a trusted doggy friend might be the first step to help," she adds. Still, you need a competent professional (dog trainer or certified behavior consultant) to determine exactly what's going on.

As for barking at the window, restrict Mickey to another part of the house, or pull down the shades. However, that solution is only a Band-Aid.

"Offer more interesting things for Mickey to do in the house by enriching his environment," says Donaldson. "Offer treats in toys (food- or treat-dispensing toys) or genius toys that keep dogs' brains occupied, such as Nina Ottosson toys (http://www.nina-ottosson.com/, and specialty pet stores)."

Q: My 18-year-old cat, Sophie, was missing the litter box because she didn't step far enough into it. I bought a larger box with super-high sides, but when she steps into this box, she just squats at the edge. I don't use a cover or lid and clean the box regularly. Why does Sophie behave this way? She is in the early stages of chronic renal failure but otherwise in good health. What can we do? -- M.T., Saint Paul, MN

A: It turns out that far more cats have arthritis than previously thought, even if there are no obvious signs. This may be the case with your pet.

"Poor positioning in the box is often related to poor mobility, stiffness or pain," says feline veterinarian Dr. Susan Little, of Quebec, Canada. Talk with your veterinarian about this and the possibility of using pain relief medication.

You might try using a large plastic storage box (the type used to store sweaters) as a litter box. Cut out an entranceway (smoothing off any sharp edges) so your cat can just walk in comfortably.

"Also, if the litter box is in a darker place, or Sophie seems to have more accidents in the evening, plug in a nightlight," suggests Little, a past president and board member of the Winn Feline Foundation, a nonprofit that funds cat health studies.

While you say you clean the box, the big question is, "How often?" Once or even a twice a day is a good idea.

Ultimately, you may need to place a large plastic mat (which you can wash) under the litter box. Overall, it appears your cat is doing well considering her age.

Q: Our 6-month-old kitten is very nice, except that he poops on the washing machine. He knows he's not supposed to do this because when we confine him to the bathroom (with a litter box) for a few days, he does fine. Then, after a day or two of freedom, he's back on the washing machine. Now, he's started urinating on the washing machine. We're going nuts and are ready to give him up. Any advice? -- V.B., Phoenix, AZ

A: Your kitten is not having accidents on purpose. He feels anxious about something going on when he has the freedom of the house -- something that doesn't happen when he's sequestered in the bathroom.

This little guy's behavior sounds like a classic case of intimidation by another pet. It could also be that your kitten's litter box is in a poor location, and relieving himself on the washing machine offers a better view. Perhaps the litter box is too close to where young children play, which concerns the cat. The bottom line is, this kitty doesn't feel confident enough to use his litter box.

Sometimes it's obvious that one pet is intimidating another, while sometimes the signs are subtle, particularly among cats. Simply seeing an established cat sitting close to the litter box may be off-putting to your kitten. He's choosing the washing machine as a place to do his business because it's elevated.

My guess is the washing machine is in the same room as the litter box. If so, you might try setting up a sturdy snack table and placing a litter box on the table, offering a lookout spot similar to the washing machine. An uncovered box is preferable.

(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 Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://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.)

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