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Dog Training and Behavior: Ask the Veterinarian

Veterinarian Will Draper, DVM answers your questions about dog behavior and how to train your dog.

Question:
My 8-year-old Shih Tzu constantly bites and scratches himself to the point of bleeding. Then sores develop. What could be causing this and what can I do to help him stop?
Answer:

Your dog's scratching is most likely the result of allergies. Commonly known as atopic dermatitis, he may be allergic to something in the air, such as pollen, grass, or fungi. Food and flea allergies can also cause this sort of behavior. Consult with your veterinarian on this issue to determine the actual cause(s) of his scratching and to discuss treatment options.

Question:
My puppy gets anxious when we leave him alone. At least once a week, he throws up if we leave the house for an hour or more. Our vet said we were overfeeding him. Now, we're only feeding him the amount suggested by the manufacturer and he's still doing this. Any suggestions?
Answer:

This sounds like a case of separation anxiety, which is pretty common. It is likely that, with time, your puppy will outgrow it. However, I recommend talking with a behavioral specialist/trainer to discuss your options. Sometimes, crating your dog when you are gone, or changing his feeding times may help. In more drastic cases, I would recommend talking with your vet about the need for anti-anxiety medication.

Question:
Pumpkin, my 11-year-old dog has started eating dirt. He is in a kennel with another dog who is 9, and they get along great. The other dog is a digger and she does dig with her mouth on occasion. But I've never seen her eating dirt. So I can't say that Pumpkin is imitating her. Why would my dog suddenly eat dirt?
Answer:

A dog's desire to eat "non-food" materials is known as pica. And dirt is frequently one of these materials. Sometimes dogs will eat dirt as part of an innate response to help their bodies manage mineral deficiencies. So this behavior could be an indication that the dog food you're using may not be providing him all the nutrients he needs.

Dogs will also eat dirt out of boredom or for no reason at all. I recommend talking with your vet about it, though, and having some lab work done to make sure all is well.

Question:
My 8-year-old pit bull has started eating paper products obsessively. He's had slightly elevated liver enzymes for over a year and a lot of fatty tumors around his sternum and rib cage area. He's also very anxious. Do you have any idea what could be going on with the paper eating?
Answer:

A dog's desire to eat "non-food" materials is known as pica. Sometimes dogs will eat paper out of boredom or to get attention. This could also be a sign of senility or dementia in older dogs. I would not attribute this to elevated liver enzymes or any fatty tumors he may have. The best thing to do is to keep your paper products away from your dog. Continued ingestion could lead to serious gastrointestinal problems for him.

Question:
How can I train my puppy to stop pooping and peeing inside the house?
Answer:

Puppies need a consistent routine to learn when and where to go potty. Try taking him/her outside at the same time every day, out of the same door, and to the same area. It may be necessary to repeat this routine at the same time, to the very minute, every day. After a few weeks of this, your pup should get the idea.

Question:
My 8-week-old Pomeranian will not eat her food! I've been feeding her a hard food for puppies and I've tried softening it, mixing it with a bit of wet food, leaving it dry… nothing works! But, she does always want to eat my cat's food, which is an indoor formula cat food. My puppy will run up to it and try to eat it over and over again! We put Kitty's food up high so that my puppy can't reach it. But she still doesn't want her own food. What can I do? What affect could eating cat food have on her?
Answer:

Cat food won't hurt your pup. But it may cause her to have an upset stomach, possibly with vomiting and/or diarrhea. I'd consider trying another type of food. Clearly, your pup has an appetite, but just does not like the hard puppy food she's getting. But there are other great, premium puppy foods that make good options, too. Talk with your vet about what options he/ she may recommend.

Question:
I have a 3-month-old Shih Tzu. I have to use a walker and don't get around as much. I'm worried that she isn't getting enough exercise. She doesn't instinctively fetch. Do you have any ideas on how I can make sure she's staying active enough?
Answer:

Hiring a dog walker is a good option for helping her get exercise. Dog walking has become a very popular way for people to get exercise and make a few dollars at the same time. I'm sure you can find a dog walker online, or ask around your neighborhood. Your veterinarian may also have some good references.

Question:
Is there any way to correct excessive barking?
Answer:

There are humane bark collars that you can purchase for your dog. They administer a mild electrical correction (a very mild shock) when a dog barks more than 3 or 4 times in a row. The shock is about as painful as a small pinch on your hand. For owners who don't like the idea of their dogs being shocked, there are also collars that will spray a citronella mist into their faces (which dogs do not like) when they bark excessively. These can be purchased at just about any reputable pet store. If neither of these options is acceptable for you, speak with your vet or a trainer.

Question:
My dog gets overly excited when someone he likes comes over. He is 80 pounds, so he could hurt someone if he jumps on them. How can I train him to react more calmly?
Answer:

You probably cannot train him to stop. But a certified dog trainer certainly could. This is one of the most common issues pet owners face. So a good trainer will have seen this behavior many times, and should know the best way to train your dog away from it.

Question:
My 1-year-old Morkie won't stop destroying her toys. She pulls the stuffing out of anything and everything around the house, including her bed. She doesn't eat the white polyfill. But she seems obsessed with getting to it. Is there something I can do to stop this behavior?
Answer:

When a dog has this destructive habit with toys and stuffed items, it's difficult to discourage. The best thing to do is to give her toys to play with that she can't tear up, like strong rubber toys. Or you could certainly get a referral from your vet for a good behavioral specialist or trainer.

Question:
My 4-year-old dog has started dragging her butt a lot. The vet expressed her anal sacs, but that doesn't seem to be the issue. He gave her a shot in case there was an infection somewhere. After the shot she stopped for a couple of weeks, but then she started doing it again. She doesn't have worms. What could be wrong!
Answer:

Besides worms or anal gland problems, an itchy backside can be a sign of a food allergy. Talk with your vet about starting a hypoallergenic trial diet for your dog.

Question:
We have a 6-year-old Rat Terrier that starts shaking every time it rains. And when it thunders she hides under our bed. Is something wrong with our dog? Our neighbor has the same kind of dog, but that dog isn't afraid of storms?
Answer:

There is nothing "wrong" with your dog. Storm anxiety, which it appears your dog has, is not a breed-specific issue. Any dog can suffer from it. I have a Jack Russell Terrier and a Labradoodle that both suffer from the same issue. Talk to your vet about anti-anxiety medications that may help your dog weather the storms.

Question:
How can I get rid of -- or at least cut down -- on my dog's gas?
Answer:

This is probably diet related. Talk to your veterinarian about a more appropriate diet for your dog. Gas can be a sign of a food allergy, as well. So maintaining a hypoallergenic diet may help.

Question:
What conditions could cause my dog to lose his sense of balance all of a sudden?
Answer:

There are many issues that can cause this, inner ear infections being the most common. Inflammation in the inner ear can also cause a loss of balance. Some neurologic problems can lead to imbalance. A visit to your vet is definitely in order.

Question:
My 9-month-old Yorkie keeps chewing furniture and eating the wood. Could something be missing from her diet? What is this all about?
Answer:

This sounds more like a behavioral issue rather than a dietary one. Your dog would still be teething at her age. And dogs tend to chew more when they're teething, in efforts to relieve the discomfort. Make sure there are plenty of "chewing options" around the house, like raw hides and durable toys.

Question:
I have a Border-Aussie named Bailey. She is very active while we're outdoors. But when we come inside, she goes under the bed and sleeps for a long time. During the day she'll stay under the bed unless she has to use the bathroom. Is this something we should be worried about?
Answer:

I don’t think it's anything to worry yourself over. But clearly, there is some reason your dog is more comfortable under the bed than she is anywhere else in your home. It would be interesting to know if this happens in your home only; if she repeats this behavior when indoors other places. There may be a pet or person in the home that makes her feel stressed or nervous. It doesn't sound like she's in harm's way. But you might want to consult a behavioral specialist or trainer to see if there is something that can be done.

Question:
Can dogs have autism? My Piebald Dachshund licks things constantly -- his feet, me, the sofa, blankets…anything. He also barks when I move something in the house, and won't stop until I put it back. He barks at every little noise or movement. He doesn't like to be cuddled, but prefers to sit on my lap without being petted.
Answer:

Dogs cannot have autism. It sounds like your dog has some peculiar behavioral characteristics. A consultation with a behavioral specialist or trainer might be a good idea.

Question:
My dog always wants to lick my feet. Why is this? Is this normal?
Answer:

It is not unusual for dogs to have a foot fetish. My dog loves to lick our feet, too. It's their way of showing affection. Dogs will also find certain scents attractive, and the scent of feet could certainly fall in that category. Also, if you put lotion or oil on your feet, your dog may find that appealing.

Question:
My 6-month-old dog looks sad and hasn't eaten anything in 24 hours. What should I do?
Answer:

Get him/her to the vet as soon as possible. A dog that isn't eating and is depressed -- especially a younger dog -- is an emergency situation.

Question:
Can you still train a dog to do tricks once it's reached 2 years of age
Answer:

Yes! Absolutely. You can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks. And 2 years of age isn't old, even for a dog.

Question:
My 13-month-old Mini Yorkie likes to bark at me -- just me. What's that about? Is she trying to "talk" to me?
Answer:

This could be her way of talking to you and showing you that she’s excited to see you. She could also be reacting to some scent on you. But if she does this every time she sees you, I'd guess she’s just talking.

Question:
I want to get my male dog neutered. But my female dog is in heat. So my male dog is hiking up his leg on everything in the house. If I have him neutered now -- while he's already displaying this behavior -- could he continue to do it after being neutered?
Answer:

He could continue it, depending on his age. The older a dog gets, the more likely he will continue this behavior. After a while it becomes habit. Usually dogs that are neutered before 1 year of age won't continue this behavior. After that, it's less predictable.

Question:
My 12-year-old Lab has been having bowel movements in the house for the last two days. But she never has accidents. Is there a condition that might be causing this?
Answer:

Older dogs can suffer from dementia and senility as they age. One of the first signs can be inappropriate accidents in the home. It's not her fault. You may have to make some lifestyle changes for her. Keep her in an area where these accidents can be easily cleaned up. Talk with your veterinarian about medical options. There are medications that can help with cognitive dysfunction in dogs.

Question:
My Yorkie and my Poodle have been together for 8 months. I had my Poodle first, and then I brought home the Yorkie. Now all of a sudden they've started fighting. Why? I've had to keep them separated for nearly a week. How can I stop this sudden fighting?
Answer:

If either or both of them are intact, I suggest neutering. If both are neutered, there will have to be some lifestyle changes for both. You may have a situation where you must keep the dogs separated unless there is someone around to supervise them. You can also feed them separately. Sometimes food aggression can carry over into other areas of your pets' relationships. You may need to consult with a trainer or behavioral specialist. Or meet with your veterinarian to discuss other options.

Thank you for joining us for WebMD Ask the Veterinarian. Be sure to check in on Thursday, March 15, at 1 p.m. ET, when we will discuss "vet-iquette" -- tips for making your visits to the veterinarian more productive and less stressful. Sign up if you'd like an email reminder the day before the event.

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Reviewed by William Draper, DVM on February 14, 2012