Careful training can solve many pet behavior problems

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The following reader questions about dog behavior were answered by veterinary behaviorist Dr. Debra Horwitz, of St. Louis, MO, an editor (with Dr. John Ciribassi and myself) of "Decoding Your Dog" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, $27) written by members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. The book explains common canine behavior problems and ways to avoid them. There's also advice from experts on how to change unwanted behaviors using science-based methods.

Q: Until two weeks ago, our Chihuahua/Terrier rode in the car with no problem. She gets excited when we ask if she wants to go "bye bye," but now she pants as soon as she gets in the car, climbs on our shoulders and yawns a lot. I've tried to take her only for short rides to the park, but her reaction is the same. Any advice? -- H.A., Las Vegas, NV

A: Horwitz says to begin by changing your dog's association with the car. Begin by offering her treats for merely jumping in the car, but go nowhere. Don't even start the engine. Once your dog can do this with no signs of stress, drive a short distance, return home, and offer your dog a meal. The idea is to associate car rides with something your dog likes: food.

Some tools you could use to ease anxiety include an Adaptil collar, which emits a copy of a calming pheromone, and/or Anxitane, which contains L-Theanine, a calming nutritional supplement.

Rather than anxiety, your dog's problem could be motion sickness. If so, behavior modification won't do much good. If that yawning is accompanied by lots of lick-lipping, and/or your dog vomits on car rides, she's likely nauseous. Ask your veterinarian about Cerenia, an anti-nausea drug.

Horwitz says some dogs feel more comfortable in the car when confined in a carrier or safety seat (behind a seat belt).

If all does go well, those short rides can gradually become longer without bothering your dog.

Q: Buddy is a 2-year-old Chihuahua. When we adopted him, he quickly became our buddy. However, he's not everyone's buddy; he howls at anyone who comes in the house and doesn't stop until they leave. We try to distract him with toys and treats, but no luck. Any ideas? -- A.W, Cyberspace

A: "It's not unusual for dogs to take some time to show their real personalities after being adopted," says Horwitz. "For whatever reason, it seems your dog is fearful. Teach Buddy to be calm and relaxed behind a closed door. Begin to teach him when only you (and/or other family members) are home before any company visits."

Stuff cookies or low fat/low salt peanut butter or low fat cream cheese into Kong toys, or pour kibble into food puzzles or food-dispensing toys to keep Buddy occupied behind that closed door.

"Ultimately, you'll want to desensitize and counter-condition Buddy to visitors, and you can do that," Horwitz says. It's best to find a dog trainer using positive reinforcement techniques or a veterinary behaviorist to meet your dog in person, assess the situation and show you what to do.

Q: My Australian Shepherd lies on her stomach to have her belly rubbed, then shortly after, she raises a rear leg and starts to hit herself in the head just before her left ear. Is this a nervous tick, or is she trying to tell me something? -- C., via cyberspace

A: When dogs' bellies are rubbed, it's not unusual for one leg to move back and forth, over and over, "but (what you describe) seems more intense and vigorous," says Horwitz. "It would be interesting to offer much shorter belly rubs, then see if your dog asks for more. Maybe this is like how it's OK to tickle someone for a few seconds, but not for many minutes; it's no longer fun."

Clearly, you don't think this behavior is normal. If you have a smartphone, videotape the behavior and email it your veterinarian.

Q: We rescued a little 3-1/2-year-old Jack Russell Terrier. She's a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" dog. On walks, she gets aggressive with any dog who gets anywhere near us. My husband is frustrated and getting to the point of giving up this dog. She's a troubled little girl. Can you help? -- S.S., St. Catharine's, Ontario, Canada

A: "Some dogs are more reactive than others, and terriers are right up there, sometimes bordering on dramatic," says Horwitz. "The technique (your dog is using) works: The dog gets aggressive, barking and using all those antics. You walk away and the other dog walks away. So, your dog does it again and again."

Horwitz continues, "What you should do for now is simply stay away from other dogs, so your pet doesn't continue to practice this behavior."

Horwitz says a dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement techniques or a veterinary behaviorist may be needed to observe exactly what's going on, then show you how to lower your dog's level of reactivity.

As frustrating as this problem may be, please don't give up on your dog. If you send him back to the shelter, and even if he's adopted out again, his chances might not be good.

(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; 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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