Behavior Solutions In Animals

Behavior Solutions

Dear Dr. Suzanne:

Q. I have a three-year-old spayed cat who stays indoors for the most part (she goes out on a leash sometimes). Unfortunately, there are two other cats in our neighborhood who aren’t as well supervised. One visits at night and urinates in my front garden bed. The other comes right up on the porch when she knows my cat is watching and stares at her through the window. Naturally, my cat goes crazy, meowing and hissing, which is very disturbing at 2:00 a.m. Neither cat looks feral but I can’t tell where they live. How can I keep them off my property and give my cat some peace?

A. This is a great question, because it’s not uncommon for free-roaming cats to cause problems for indoor cats. The frustration your cat is experiencing can cause her to urine-mark, attack another family cat, and even redirect aggression to you.

More and more cities are enacting cat leash laws, so if your community has one, you could consider involving your local animal control agency.

If you want to deal with the problem yourself, I’d suggest using a device called a Scarecrow® ( This is a motion detector that attaches to your garden hose. When movement is detected, the device shoots a spray of two to three cups of water from your hose into the detection area. It can cover as much as 1,000 square feet.

This sort of device meets the criteria for effective yet humane correction – it is immediate, consistent, doesn’t depend on your presence, and is intense enough to convince the cats to leave without harming them.

Another option is to write and home-deliver copies of a letter asking your neighbors to keep their cats on their own property. Your delivery area might be quite large, as these roaming cats could reside up to several blocks away. But if the owners are irresponsible enough to allow their cats out at 2:00 a.m., your pleas will likely fall on deaf ears.

Lastly, you could discourage your cat from sitting in the window and watching the cats. Cover the windowsill with an upside-down carpet runner, whose stiff, plastic points should be sharp enough to deter your cat from sitting or standing on them. If your cat is still agitated from hearing or smelling the cats, however, keeping her out of the window won’t fully address the problem.

Dear Gillian:

Q. My retriever loves to dig and my lawn is starting to look like I have gophers. It’s hard for me to be with her every minute she’s outside. Is there anything I can do to change this behavior?

A. This behavior can be modified but will require some diligence. The first thing to look at is why your dog might be digging. The most likely reason that dogs dig when left out in the yard is boredom or lack of exercise. You mentioned that you can’t be outside with her every minute, which is understandable. However, this situation does require some supervision, so perhaps she should come indoors when you can’t watch her until she starts to understand what you expect of her.

Many dogs are delegated to the back yard on a daily basis. Even if your yard is large, it still does not provide enough mental stimulation for most dogs. Take your retriever for a daily walk of about 45 minutes minimum. This will give her sustained aerobic activity, which can act as a stress reliever.

Next, get your dog’s brain working. If it’s boredom that is causing the digging, then spend a bit of time teaching her some new tricks by getting involved in some dog sports or obedience. If this will not fit into your schedule, then teach her some activities such as how to retrieve.

Another thing you can do is provide a dig pit for her. This is an area in the yard where she is allowed to dig. You will need to show it to her a few times until she catches on.

Dear Paul:

Q. My two shelties (age three and one) are very gentle and friendly towards strangers. They are also well trained and can perform many tricks. However, they make soft growling sounds sometimes, even though they have never followed the growling with aggression. For example, if someone knocks on the door, they will growl and bark. I have put my hand around their mouths whenever they growled and told them sternly “no”. I have also tried taking them to sniff whatever they were growling at. But nothing works. How can I fix the problem, or should I be concerned in the first place?

A. Safety is always the first concern. A dog’s growls certainly should be a heads-up for the possibility of escalating aggressive behavior. The fact that the behavior hasn’t gone beyond soft growls is a good sign. That being said, much more information is needed. For example, how long has the behavior been manifesting? Are there other physical displays which give clues as to how the dogs are feeling? Are your dogs sensitive to motion, sound or touch? (Maybe the growling is fear-induced). Are they “self employed” – that is, if they bark at other times, are they unintentionally rewarded for doing so? How is their health?

A professional trainer who uses positive methods should be consulted to evaluate your situation and set you up on a behavior modification program. Basically, you want to do two things:

1. Change the way the dogs feel about people coming to the door.

2. Teach your dogs a substitute behavior.

The first is accomplished by using counter-conditioning, which deals with the possible cause of the growling behavior, namely their fear. By dealing with the cause, the symptom (growling) disappears. For example, by offering your dogs awesome treats whenever someone comes to the door, they will eventually associate the newcomer with the treats. As a result, they will really like it whenever someone knocks and will no longer bark or growl.

Teaching your dog a substitute behavior will take away their “job” as official guardians of the home and give them something else to do. Why not teach them to run to their beds whenever someone knocks at the door? Or how about fetching a favorite toy whenever the doorbell rings? Or teach them to bark three times and then come to you and lie down at your feet? Or teach them to immediately lie down and stay and then give them a good chew toy, such as a treat-filled Kong.

It’s very possible your dogs are growling because of the corrections being used. If the only time you yell “no” and hold their noses is when someone comes to the door, they will quickly learn that a person at the door means trouble for them. I would suggest using the proactive, positive methods as outlined above, rather than correction.

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