Question: What does muzzle licking mean (one dog licking another dog's muzzle)?
Answer: Wild dog puppies lick their mother's lips when she returns from a hunt, her belly full of pre-digested meat. This is the signal for her to regurgitate and for them to share the spoils. Pups engage in this behavior in an excited servile, almost sycophantish manner, begging for her favor. The behavioral display reflexly triggers the appropriate visceral response from mom who proceeds to deliver the goods. The pups' groveling is thus rewarded and the behavior reinforced some. Domestic dog pups engage in this behavior after transitioning to solid food, and with the same result. While there are no doubt reflex connections that complete this biological loop, there are clearly cognitive aspects, too. The pups' behavior is a well-mannered, polite request (saying "pretty please"), and is undoubtedly intended as, and viewed as, a subordinate behavior. It is a care-soliciting behavior that elicits a care giving response by the mother. An echo of this behavior often persists into adulthood, so that when certain deferent dogs meet a highly-esteemed peer, they will often signal their utter respect in this vestigial, puppyish way.
Question: Why do some dogs nurse on items such as blankets?
Answer: Puppies are born with an instinct to nurse at mother's milk bar. All things being equal they are provided with this opportunity, and will nurse to their little hearts' content until, at some later stage of development, the bitch, in her wisdom, begins to rebuff their attempts. Even when the milk bar has virtually dried up, some pups will return to the "well" for an occasional comfort suckle if they become unnerved by surrounding events. Dogs with such opportunities are unlikely to go on to become blanket suckers; it's the ones who have this biological drive denied that divert their nursing behavior inappropriately. An extreme example of a pup set up for blanket sucking would be an orphan pup that is bottle-raised by a well-intentioned owner. No matter how hard the human caregiver tries, he or she cannot provide the same opportunities to nurse as the pup's mom. In moments of unsatisfied need, the pup may turn to nursing on itself, its littermates, or a nearby blanket. Early-weaned pups are also likely to exhibit displaced nursing behavior in the form of blanket sucking. In addition, some breeds have a greater propensity to nurse or chew on blankets than others, implying a genetic, as well as nurtural, influence on the behavior. Breeds most well known for this behavior are Doberman Pinschers and Dachshunds. Dobermans will nurse on blankets and also on themselves. In the latter instance, the behavior is termed flank sucking. Perhaps the breed propensity derives from a more powerful nursing instinct that is less easily satisfied and more likely to displace.
Question: Why does my dog like to stick his head out of the car window when we're driving?
Answer: Dogs aren't fools. They know what they like and they like sticking their head out of car windows, just as children do. They like seeing things whizzing by, they like the feel of the wind on their face, and they can smell all sorts of interesting smells associated with the various neighborhoods they pass through. For a dog, having its head out of the window of a moving car provides a veritable cornucopia of sensory experiences. However, the downside to allowing dogs to revel in this pleasure is that they can get injured. Flying pebbles thrown up by passing cars' wheels, and the sheer force of a 60 MPH wind practically peeling back the dog's eyelids, may take their toll. To attenuate this risk, one company has devised goggles for dogs to wear when they stick their heads out of the window so that their eyes are protected (Doggles"). In answer to the question, "Why do dogs like to stick their heads out of a car window when we're driving?" the correct answer should be, because it's fun. However, without the correct supervision and proper precautions, the fun may literally end in tears for both dog and owner.
Question: Dog owners love to talk about how smart their dogs are. Is there an objective test to see how my little Einstein measures up?
Answer: There certainly are intelligence tests for dogs, most notably those described in Stanley Coren's book, The Intelligence of Dogs. Dr. Coren set up all kinds of tests and puzzles for dogs to attempt - ones that measure different components of dogs' intelligence. He scores dogs on how well they do on these tests and ranks them. But of course, as Dr. Coren knows, no test or group of tests is perfect, and the conclusions drawn from such tests, however well-intentioned, may sometimes be misleading. Let's face it; it's difficult enough to measure intelligence in human beings without trying to obtain an accurate measure of intelligence in our dogs. Some people and some dogs might do particularly well in one type of test and fail miserably in another. But, bearing in mind these limitations, if you want to put your little Einstein to the test, get yourself a stop watch and try out some of Dr. Coren's tests. If your dog does well, it may be that he's smart - but if he refuses to engage in such trivial pursuits, he may be even smarter.
Question: Once and for all, do dogs really feel emotions such as love and sorrow?
Answer: The answer to whether dogs feel emotions is a definite yes. They can be happy or sad, fearful or depressed, angry or elated. The real question to be answered is, "Do dogs have secondary emotions, like jealousy or guilt?" These are more sophisticated emotions that necessitate concepts of self and others. I believe that dogs are capable at even secondary emotions and can't imagine why anyone would think otherwise. If a dog insists on wedging itself between its owners when they try to kiss or cuddle, it appears like jealousy to me. When a dog that has never been punished hangs its head in shame when its owner finds an "accident" on the carpet, I call it guilt. When a dog looks adoringly at its puppies or its owner, and is inseparable from them, I call it love. And when a dog looks depressed and stops eating following the loss of a loved one, I call it sorrow. Call me simple, I call it blatant.
Question: Whenever anyone comes into my home, including family members, my Corgi MUST run and grab something - a shoe, a toy, a magazine - to put in her mouth. She doesn't offer it to the newcomer; instead she just seems to want to hold it there. What is this about?
Answer: Any behavior has both genetic and learned components. The Corgi genetics operating in this case may be those governing willfulness ("dominance," if you will) and prey drive (modified by us humans to facilitate their prior use for herding cattle). Learning, or nurtural components, in your dog's case could be positive or negative reinforcement. Let us suppose, for a moment, that your dog is displaying this behavior because of dominance and negative reinforcement of her behavior. In that case, she would grab the object to prevent people from getting it. The frequency of the behavior would be increased because it avoids a negative consequence - the loss of access to the object in question. In a different scenario, the behavior might be derived as a result of her predatory inclinations and positive reinforcement of her behavior. That is, her natural tendency to grab something in her mouth and hold it there might be reinforced by peoples' attention. The game goes on as long as she retains the object, is over the moment she relinquishes it. So she doesn't. I'll have to leave it to you to determine the precise cause of your dog's behavior, but if she shows signs of willfulness or possessiveness at other times, perhaps the dominance explanation fits better. Or, if you regard her as a dog with a strong prey drive who likes to be the center of attention, maybe the predatory explanation is correct. You could argue dominance and positive reinforcement, or predatory motivation and negative reinforcement. There would be ways to test these theories but that's a whole other story.
Question: Every day a co-worker calls home and has his wife hold the telephone up to his Italian Greyhound's ear so he can coo to the dog. Is the dog really comforted by his owner's voice over the telephone?
Answer: It sounds to me as if your co-worker is doing this more for his benefit than for his dog's. The dog will be able to hear him on the telephone and may be able to recognize his voice, but probably he regards the fact that his master's voice comes out of the telephone ear piece more as a curiosity than relief. Like the dog who runs around the back of the television to see off the other dogs that appear on the screen, this dog probably wonders how his owner fits into the telephone hand piece. The dog's expression would tell it all. If, like the RCA dog, Nipper, who has his head cocked to one side at the sound of "his master's voice." I would suspect puzzlement. If his expression is blank, he may not have even achieved this level of interest. However, if your co-worker's wife reports that her dog seems excited only when his master's voice is at the other end of the phone, I could be wrong.
Question: Do dogs have a sense of humor?
Answer: That's a very tricky question. The answer is that they probably do not. At least, not as we know it. Our sense of humor is very ethnic, often linguistically inclined, and often at the expense of someone else's misfortune. A joke that works well in the United States may not work at all in Japan. A play on words would not work for anyone who did not speak the same language. Some people may think it funny to see a person getting a pie in the face, while others may not. Larsen once did a cartoon of a man coming into a room, tripping and falling flat on the floor, his face in the dog food bowl. The dog looked happy and was wagging his tail and the caption was, "Stimulus response." Cartoons aside, it is unlikely that dogs would share the same humor that we do. However, the play bow, in its ambivalence and energy, a come on or "I dare you if you will," accompanied by twinkling eyes and a smile, might be the nearest thing to humor in the dog world. Happiness they do have. Humor, who knows?
Question: My brother's Poodle is obsessed with his toys, and wants to play fetch all day and night. He never gets tired of it. Does he suffer from obsessive-compulsion disorder?
Answer: A lot of dogs seemingly live to fetch - to retrieve a ball or toy time after time long after the thrower's attention has long since been exhausted. I wrote about one such dog, Fletch, in Dogs Behaving Badly. You've heard the expression "shop till you drop." Well, Fletch would fetch till she dropped, and was several orders of magnitude more intent on this game than perhaps even your ball crazy dog. In such cases, it is quite reasonable to consider that the behavior may have reached the proportions of an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Here are some facts to consider when applying such a label. First, OCD's are derived from natural behaviors and retrieving is a derived from predatory behavior - that is hard-wired in dogs. Secondly, there might be, but doesn't have to be, a constantly recurring thought preceding the action. Thirdly, the compulsion is the acting out the constantly recurring thought process. With OCD's, it's not what dogs do but the way (or rather the extent) to which they do it. It's the same with humans and their OCD's. There is nothing wrong with washing your hands, but if you wash them two or three hundred times a day then there's a problem. For dogs, there's nothing wrong with chasing and retrieving a ball, but if a dog does it for hours each day, seemingly to the exclusion of interest in other behaviors, then there may be a problem. So, I would think your brother's Poodle may well have an OCD and your instincts in this case may well be right. How OCD's arise and what you do about them are both lengthy topics and there is no space to address here, but I would suggest that you consult with a veterinarian and/or behaviorist about this dog's behavior and, if OCD is confirmed, you will be apprised of how to address the problem.
Question: Our Shetland sheepdog won't go to sleep until the entire family has retired, no matter how late we stay up. She is clearly exhausted and annoyed that she is still awake, but she can't seem to help herself. Is there any way I can convince her that it's OK to go to sleep without us?
Answer: The straight answer to this question is I'm not sure you can do anything about this behavior, the reason being that it derives from innate, almost primordial motivation. Sheepdogs, in general, and Shelties, in particular, are driven to watch over and protect their flock - which family members are to them. They are quite compulsive in this respect and, from their point of view, for very good reason. Shelties tend to herd people back into groups when they try to leave, and some, like your dog may be hard pressed to rest until everyone in the home is in their correct place. This type of behavior is all in a day's work for a dog of this persuasion, and she takes her job very seriously. You might be able to take the edge off her by making sure she gets plenty of exercise during the day, that she's fed a sensible diet, and that she responds consistently to voice commands, including one to relax. You could even try shifting her biological clock with melatonin, but I'm not sure you'll ever be able to extinguish the behavior completely. She will likely never be entirely comfortable in the evening until you are all in bed and counting sheep, so her persistence will keep you well rested!
Question: Our Whippet scrapes her empty bowl furiously every night after she's finished eating. But when we put more food in the bowl, she just looks at it and walks away. Does she just want to know that the food is there?
Answer: Digging is a natural behavior for dogs and it is sometimes done in connection with burying or digging up food. I suspect that one day, when she had finished her food and was looking for more, she scratched at the bottom of the bowl and you refilled it - unwittingly reinforcing the behavior. Perhaps she was still hungry and searching for more food at the time. Now she knows that every time she finishes a meal and the bowl is empty, all she has to do is scratch and it will be replenished. She may not actually want to eat the food at the moment it's put down but may just like the comfortable feeling that food is there when she wants to snack. Essentially, she has taught you to keep the bowl full so that she has unlimited access to food. She is obviously a smart dog and a lucky dog to have such compliant owners. Her cup literally runneth over.
Question: When dogs bark at each other, are they actually communicating?
Answer: Sure they're communicating, but barking is only one part of the message: The rest is body language. A confident dominant dog may bark at another dog approaching his property to advertise his presence and signal a warning, "Halt, who goes there?" As he barks this message, head will be held high, his eyes directed toward the other dog. Also, his ears will be pricked and forward (if possible), his body will be tense, his tail erect, and he may be walking forward. A more fearful dog being approached by another dog may bark a more furious and flamboyant message, "Stay away from me, I'm dangerous you know." His body language gives away his fear. His eyes may be flicking furtively from side to side, his ears will be pressed to his head, his hackles raised, and his rear end low and tail tucked. In moments of boldness, he may come forward, and then fearing he may have overstepped the limits, he may retire. The combination of barking, body language, and approach-avoidance behavior gives away his motivation even to us relatively uneducated body language readers. But barking, on its own, is a relatively crude communication. If it means anything it may mean, "Over here." What it is not communicating is anything really sophisticated like, "Hey you over there, it's me, I'd like to meet you. Please come over to my house right away and we'll see if we can't get something going."
Question: Why does it take my dog so long to find just the right spot to urinate, even though I know he really has to "go"?
Answer: One reason for the delay is that most dogs must thoroughly investigate the area first to imbibe the various olfactory (pheromonal) signals previously deposited there by themselves or other dogs. Even simply establishing an "all clear," i.e. that no one has left a warning pee-mail signal is, to a dog, a worthwhile exercise. Once the significance, or not, of the location has been thoroughly explored, a dog feels free to evacuate his bladder. One of the reasons that we humans fail to understand this type of behavior is that we do not live in the same olfactory world as dogs. Our sense of smell is considerably inferior, so to us, the whole exercise appears somewhat pointless. Also, we fail to appreciate the dual significance of urination as an elimination process and as a means of communication.
Question: I have a female dog that marks. I thought only males did this?
Answer: No, marking behavior is not solely a male province. It is also engaged in by bitches, especially intact bitches in heat. But even spayed females will urine-mark when they have certain messages to convey. So, if you wonder why your bitch is marking, you might want to note the location and consider the motivation. If she's intact, spaying will likely address the problem, if she's already neutered, there's probably anxiety involved. If the cause of the anxiety is addressed, the urine-marking will cease. In extreme cases, anti-anxiety medication can be used to eliminate urine-marking in neutered or intact females.
Question: Can dogs be obsessively tidy? Our Boston Terrier gets upset if we leave things out of place, for example, if I'm sweeping the floor and leave the broom leaning against the wall instead of putting it way, or if we bring home packages from the store and don't unpack them immediately. He'll stare at the offending item and make a "gruffing" noise until everything is put in its place.
Answer: Some dogs can be obsessive about symmetry and neatness, but it sounds to me as if your dog is frightened by these unfamiliar objects. Brooms and vacuum cleaners are bizarre objects to some dogs, who take issue every time they appear. Mysterious brown paper packages are also not to be trusted; it seems they are unknown quantities that might contain scary objects, like a hand brush, for example. The best thing to do if you're a dog of this persuasion is to bark yourself silly until the object is whisked away, which it invariably is. Thus your efforts are rewarded and you're all set for a repeat performance the next time a threatening object appears in your home. Like Don Quixote, these anxious dogs are tilting at windmills.
Question:Can my dog's aggression be treated to the point where I can trust him again?
Answer:There are many different types of aggression and many different frequencies and intensities of aggression by dogs directed towards people. The most common type of aggression we see is owner-directed aggression and using a non-confrontational rehabilitation program we find that up to 90% of owners report their dogs are much better and now livable while 70% claim their dog is cured. The time period for the success is two-months and, yes, the learning does stick but some aspects of the training program have to be kept in place. The second most common type of aggression is fear aggression and that is directed towards people who the dog is not familiar with i.e. strangers. This type of aggression is impossible to erase entirely but can be reduced to a manageable level in a majority of dogs. Treatment involves lifestyle adjustments, retraining, and control and avoidance measures. Sometimes fear aggression can manifest as territorial aggression, though fear is the driving force. Predatory aggression, which is only rarely directed towards people, is virtually impossible to treat as it is hard-wired. Medical causes of aggression can sometimes be addressed with spectacular results. These things said it is not always safe to try treating an aggressive dog depending on the circumstances. If you have a very large dog who has in the past delivered a serious bite or one who has directed aggression towards young children in your home, you might be better to consider rehoming him with an experienced dog owner in a different situation from your own.
Question:I have a cat that has been urinating around my home for six months. Can this problem be treated?
Answer:Housesoiling, whether a litter box problem or urine-marking, can these days almost always be successfully treated. With litter box problems it is simply a matter of diagnosing them and then following the yellow brick road of treatment success. Key points are to provide enough litter boxes in the right locations, containing a type of litter that is acceptable to the cat and to clean up previously soiled areas properly. Urine-marking involves addressing the cause of the cat's anxiety and, almost always, using some anti-anxiety medication. Our increasing knowledge of what causes housesoiling has meant that, over the last twenty years, it has evolved from being extremely difficult to treat, sometimes the cause of surrender of a cat, to now being one of the more easily and usually 100% treatable behavior problems.
Question:My formerly peaceful cat has suddenly become extremely aggressive to me and my husband. What on earth is going on?
Answer:Sudden changes in behavior in an adult cat are frequently the result of a medical problem. In one case I saw, an 8-year old cat that had suddenly become aggressive turned out to have a brain tumor. More commonly, behavioral seizures, sometimes in the form of feline hyperesthesia syndrome (see link to PetPlace.com), can be the cause. In an older cat, especially one that has a voracious appetite and is rather thin, hyperthyroidism is a common cause for sudden mood change and aggression. Fortunately, many of these medical conditions are treatable and with the right care you can get your old peaceful cat back again.
Question:My dog is absolutely hysterical at the vet's office and tries to bite the vet. He has become a persona non grata. How can I improve on this intolerable situation?
Answer:Unfortunately we vets do have to do things to dogs and cats that are painful or uncomfortable, like injecting them or taking a temperature using a rectal thermometer. With time and with great patience, vets can sometimes circumvent some of these traumas by, for example, making friends with the dog, injecting with only the finest needles, distracting the dog during uncomfortable procedures and by, for example, using an ear thermometer instead of a rectal thermometer. Nevertheless, as you know, some dogs still develop an incredible fear of the vet's office. For extremely tough cases it is best to sedate the dog for veterinary visits using a magic carpet ride cocktail of anxiety-reducing medications. The slow boat to China approach, which doesn't always work, is to desensitize him to veterinary visits. This entails a drawn out process of systematically bringing him progressively closer to the heart of the veterinary practice while rewarding him with pleasant experiences at steps along the way. If all this fails, you might find your dog fares better as a house call patient rather than a clinic patient. House call vets are more plentiful these days.
Question:I'm going to have a baby in three months time and want to know if there is anything I can do with my dog to prepare?
Answer:Yes, there are several things you can do to get yourself ready for the big introduction. The first is to make any physical and logistical changes you're going to make now instead of waiting for the exact time the baby arrives. For example, if your dog is not to be allowed in the baby's room gate it off now rather than wait until later. Also, it's a good idea to introduce your dog to any baby paraphernalia like strollers and cribs ahead of time so that he has fewer surprises to encounter when the baby finally arrives. It's always a good idea to sharpen up on obedience training with your dog by spending five or ten minutes with him each day retraining him to sit, lie down, come, wait, and so on in a reliable fashion. I don't believe bringing an item of the baby's clothing from the hospital for him to smell has any benefit at all but in preparation for the baby arriving you could try desensitizing him to audio tapes of the sound of a baby crying (because that's what upsets dogs the most). When the baby comes home, you should introduce the dog and the baby under well-controlled circumstances with the baby in arms and the dog on lead. It might be best if you greet the dog first because he will not have seen you for a couple of days and then your husband can come in second with the baby in arms. Most dogs take well to new babies or ignore them. Either result is satisfactory. You should take some precautions not to leave the dog and the baby alone, especially during the first three or four weeks before the dog has an opportunity to recognize the baby as a "new pack member." After that, it is still not good to leave the dog and baby alone together but there is very little risk of anything of going awry in the first year of the baby's life until it is up and toddling but that's another story for later.
Question:Can cats be trusted around new babies?
Answer:Generally speaking, the answer to this question is yes. I have had four children and have never taken any special precautions to protect them against the cats that have always been present in my home. That said, I did read one Dear Abby column in which a behavioral expert, not me, pooh-poohed the old wives' tale of cats "sucking the wind out of babies." In response to the column, a group of angry readers wrote back and said that the so-called behavioral expert didn't know what she was talking about because they had seen it with their own eyes. One reported that he had seen a cat sitting on a baby's chest which you could imagine might make it difficult to breathe, another two said that they had seen the cat's mouth close to the baby's mouth and said she thought the baby was having difficult in breathing. However rare the phenomenon may be (if indeed it exists), it may be a good idea to put a cat net across the crib at night when the baby is very young. Even if the cat does not mean the baby any harm, an eight to ten pound cat hunkering down on a baby's chest is not a good situation.
Question:My cat has been scratching a new couch and my husband is livid. The vet suggested declawing. Do you think this is a good idea?
Answer:No, I don't recommend declawing - I advise against it. I think it is inhumane and know that it is painful and disfiguring for cats. Instead, you should provide an optimal scratching post environment for your cat and protect any furniture that you can't sacrifice to the cause. The correct number of scratching posts for a household is N+1 where N equals the number of cats. Scratching posts should be at least three feet tall, should be stable, and should, initially at least, be positioned in highly visible areas where the cat has previously scratched. Provide an assortment of scratching substrates ranging from tree bark to carpet and hessian and never through away a scratching post as being used because it looks too tacky. Visual marking is half the function of scratching; the other half is scent marking. Keep your cat's nails trim and/or fit Soft Claws and for a fuller account on how to deal with this problem humanely consult the website PetPlace.com.
Question:My dog is eating his own feces. It makes me sick. Will it make him ill?
Answer:Coprophagia, as this condition is called, is entirely harmless for a dog and is in fact a normal behavior exhibited by nursing bitches that eat their puppies' feces to keep the nest clean and is also normal for puppies. Most grow out of it by the time there are year old but some do not and that can be a problem for owners who find the behavior disgusting to witness and experience it adversely other ways, such as when the dog comes up to give them a big wet kiss. It is said that the coprophagia penchant in dogs can be reduced by denying the dog access to feces for a while. This is accomplished by keeping the yard picked up and always taking the dog out on lead - but easier said than done. It is also said that doctoring dogs' feces with hot sauces or fowl tasting materials will deter a dog, but I have not found this to be the case either. Finally, it is said that CERT's breathe fresheners or Adolph's meat tenderizer will make the stool less attractive but, again, I have had little success with this technique. The only things that I have found effective are switching the diet to a high-fiber diet, which makes the stools bulky as well as changing its texture (though some people suggest going the other way and feeding a low-residue diet). I would do whatever works! The other treatment with which I have had some success, though it sounds rather extreme, is to treat particularly compulsive stool eaters with anti-obsessional drugs for a period of time to break this repulsive habit.