Why does my dog do that? : Mounting

    Nothing can be more embarrassing than your dog mounting other dogs (or even people!), but did you know that this is a normal canine behavior? Dogs mount in play as play is practice of future behaviors and excessive mounting in pubertal males is normal. Most people are familiar with such causes as sexual behavior and mounting used to express dominance (ie their position at the top of the hierarchy), but there are other causes, and for successful treatment the root cause must be determined.

    Less commonly, the cause of being mounted may be a medical problem such as testicular cancer or even giving certain medications; so for this reason, the first step is to have your dog examined by their veterinarian. Males and females may mount females in heat. Females in heat may mount inexperienced males. Other dogs that have been in contact with females in heat and smell like them may also be mounted. One of the more common reasons for mounting is when a dog is excited or over-stimulated and mounting is used as a way to relieve this excitement or anxiety. For example, your dog may mount or be mounted when they enter a dog park, when unfamiliar people come to your house, or when petted too much. Over time dogs may learn that mounting is a very self-rewarding behavior and people usually encourage the behavior by paying lots of attention to the dog (even if the attention is negative) when they perform the behavior. Behavior that is rewarded is likely to be repeated.

    Studies show that two-thirds of male dogs show a decrease in mounting after neutering. Once medical conditions have been ruled out and your dog is spayed or neutered; the next step is implementing an appropriate behavior modification plan.

    The first step in behavior modification is to avoid the situation in which the behavior occurs, so that the dog does not continue to practice the behavior. For example, if your dog mounts other dogs at the park, then they likely need a break from the park, at least for now. If a dog is continually put in the situation that elicits the negative behavior, then it is very difficult to re-introduce the situation in a controlled manner to decrease the behavior. A board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist can help to design a plan specific to your family’s individual circumstances to diminish the undesirable behavior. This may include implementing a program in which the dog works for everything in life that they want (to give the dogs structure and predictability in their life, set the owner up as a positive leader, and increase their responsiveness to commands), teaching commands that are incompatible with the unwanted behavior (such as eye contact and hand target), the use of tools such as a head collar for better control, and desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) exercises. DS/CC is the primary technique we use to change your pet’s emotional response to triggers of anxiety and arousal.

To find a board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist in your area visit the website: www.dacvb.org.
To learn more about Dr. Meredith Stepita and her services, click here.

Beyond Separation Anxiety: Part 3, Why is My House Yellow?

Another common symptom of separation anxiety is urination and/or defecation in the house. First, all medical causes (I.E. intestinal parasites, urinary tract infections, etc) need be ruled out by visiting your veterinarian. Then, other behavioral causes should be ruled out.

Regarding urination, we must differentiate between urine marking (usually small amounts of urine on vertical surfaces) and inappropriate urination (usually large amounts of urine on horizontal surfaces). Urine marking can be due to hormonal causes in intact animals as well as anxiety and territoriality. Castration decreases marking in 70-80% of male dogs, regardless of the age of castration. Behavioral causes of inappropriate urination include management issues (I.E. home alone too long without access to an elimination area), substrate preference (carpet!), location preference, substrate or location aversion (bad weather), inadequate or lapse in house training, excitement urination, and submissive urination. Except for the last 2 causes, the same differentials apply to inappropriate defecation.
The first important step in treatment is to prevent situations that elicit the behavior. For example, a territorial pet that marks when people and dogs pass the house can be prevented from watching triggers through the window by pulling down the blinds or using wallpaper for windows (http://www.wallpaperforwindows.com/pc/home.asp). Also, dogs tend to mark new objects in the house, so keep these objects out of the dog’s reach. For example, avoid leaving a grocery bag or back pack on the ground when you walk in the door with your hands full. Instead, keep these items out of reach of the dog. Urinating and defecating are normal behaviors, so avoid punishing your dog. Punishment will also make the anxiety worse and the dog will not associate the punishment with the behavior if punished more than 1 second after the behavior occurred. Make sure to clean elimination in the house with a combination enzymatic/bacterial cleaner to degrade the urine rather than simply covering up the smell (my favorite is Anti-Icky-Poo, http://www.antiickypoo.com/). A belly band, which is essentially a male diaper, can be used as a short-term solution as long as it does not cause a cause skin infection. In some cases, anti-anxiety medication may be indicated.

If house training is the problem, here are some tips to help your dog be successful: Supervise your dog at ALL times, even keeping a leash on your dog and holding the leash. The dog should have one month without accidents in the house before allowing gradually increasing access to the house. When not directly supervised the dog should be confined. Take your dog outside to eliminate after waking up, coming out of the kennel, playing, eating, and right before bed. Initially take the dog outside every 1-2 hours and gradually increase the time over several weeks to months as they are successful. When you take your dog outside to eliminate pick a spot and wait there until your dog eliminates. Timing is important, so immediately after eliminating reward the dog with praise and a treat.
Dogs with excitement and submissive urination should be completely ignored when they are likely to urinate. Dogs often outgrow these behaviors as they reach adulthood, but may need specific desensitization and counter-conditioning protocols to change their emotional response to triggers for the behavior.

This is not an exhaustive explanation of treatment for all of the causes for urine marking and inappropriate elimination, but it’s a good start. Stay tuned to future blogs for an explanation of other causes or email us if there is a specific cause you would like discussed in more detail in a future blog.

Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)

Beyond Separation Anxiety: Part 1, Boredom

     In the United States approximately 20% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. This is a behavior problem in which dogs shows signs of stress when the owner or favorite person is NOT present. Signs of stress can include panting, pacing, salivating, destruction (especially of the door the owner exited through), urination/defecation, vocalization (barking, whining), and sometimes even escape in which they may injure themselves.
     The one key diagnostic tool to make a diagnosis of separation anxiety is videotaping the dog home alone, as long as it is safe to do so. With the development of technology videotaping is easier than ever and if you do not have a phone/camera that records video or a video camera chances are you know someone that does. You can even set up a live webcam so that you can video tape and return before the dog destroys anything or injures themselves.
    Usually the behaviors associated with separation anxiety begin within the first 10 minutes of the owner leaving the house, so only 15 minutes or so of videotaping is usually necessary. During this series of blogs we will discuss different causes of behaviors associated with the signs of separation anxiety. Many of the root causes of these behaviors are not at all associated with anxiety and require very different treatment plans from that of anxiety. That is why correct diagnosis is essential.
    One cause for this already discussed in a previous blog is aggression. Dogs with territorial aggression vocalize in response to their triggers (people, dogs) passing by and approaching the house. They may even become destructive, chewing and scratching door frames or window sills during the aggressive episodes. Please see blog on my aggression for more detail.

    We will start in this article by discussing boredom or play/exploratory behavior as a cause of destruction when home alone. I commonly think of these causes when dogs younger than 1 year of age present to me for separation anxiety. On video tape these dogs are calm, but destructive (usually not to the door the owner exited through). These dogs should be left in “dog-proofed” areas where they cannot get to items to destroy. In these cases we also need to increase enrichment, and mental stimulation is just as important as physical stimulation. Ways to accomplish this when the owners are gone include taking the dog to doggie daycare (I recommend interviewing first before enrolling your dog), hiring a dog walker, and leaving the dog home with long lasting treats that he/she can safely eat (bully sticks, food dispensing toys, frozen peanut butter Kongs, everlasting treat balls). Long lasting treats and toys can be rotated so that they retain the dog’s interest. Make sure to try the treats/ toys when you are home initially to make sure your dog consumes them in a safe manner. For recipes to make the Kong more enticing visit the website: http://www.kongcompany.com/recipes/. When the owner is home engaging the dog in positive reinforcement training, agility or other fun class (see the website: http://www.clickertraining.com/), walks, and using a bike springer to attach the dog’s leash to your bike (see the website: http://www.springeramerica.com/) should help to tire the dog out so that destructive behaviors are less likely to be performed when left alone.

How do you enrich your dog’s life? Leave me a comment with your great ideas!

Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)

Dog and Cat Behavior During Fireworks, Thunderstorms

When I was a child we owned a cute little Yorkie/Silky mixed breed dog named Cherry. We rescued her from the local animal shelter and had no information about her past life. She was very shy initially, but over time came out of her shell. I have very fond memories of Cherry, but one thing that always seemed to bother her were thunderstorms. We lived in Maryland and thunderstorms were frequent in the spring and summer. She would shake and hide in the bathtub during the storm. Poor thing; I always felt bad for her but never knew what to do. Years later after having completed veterinary school and becoming board certified in veterinary behaviorist I now know that there is a lot we can do to help dogs like Cherry.

I enjoy seeing the bright lights of the July 4 fireworks, but I also can’t help but think about all the dogs that are panicking due to the loud noises accompanying the beautiful display. I really enjoy helping these dogs develop a more positive emotional response to scary noises because I know with some hard work these dogs don’t have to continue to panic every year.) Some common triggers for noise phobia include fireworks, cars backfiring, gun shots, smoke alarms, and clicking noises (such as the heater or air conditioning turning on)…..and yes, parrots are very good at mimicking these noises, even when you are not home! Dogs with noise phobia may pant, pace, shake, hide, salivate, follow their owners, and even harm themselves trying to escape from their house/yard. However, don’t be fooled by dogs that are abnormally still and quiet during these events as dogs that exhibit “non-behavior” may also be anxious.

As it is difficult to modify problem behaviors when the noise trigger cannot be avoided it is best to start behavior modification well before unavoidable noises occur (such as in May rather than the end of June in preparation for July 4). When noise triggers cannot be avoided we use anti-anxiety medication. These medications consist of short-acting medications to relieve anxiety during unavoidable noises and/or long-term anti-anxiety medication to facilitate behavior modification and for noises that are unavoidable on a more regular basis. Sedative are not usually an appropriate first choice medication as they do not actually treat anxiety and in some cases people report that they are more noise sensitive while taking certain sedatives. Essentially, the pet is sedated and does not display anxiety on the outside, but is extremely anxious on the inside. Before medications are used it is always recommended to have blood work checked as these medications are by and large metabolized through the liver and excreted through the kidneys.

After a trip to your primary care veterinarian to rule out any medical problems that could be making the pet more sensitive to noises (and I have seen dogs react more intensely to noises when in pain), the treatment for noise phobia consists of several steps. The first is avoiding noise triggers as much as possible so that the pet does not continue to experience the fear/panic emotional response. Often, a command-response-reward program (commonly referred to as “Nothing in Life is Free”, “No Free Lunch” or “Learn to Earn”) is recommended to decrease any attention-seeking component of the behavior, create more structure and predictability for the pet and increase the pet’s responsiveness to commands. The “meat and potatoes” of the plan consists of systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC), the primary technique we use to change the pet’s emotional response to scary noises. Desensitization consists of introducing the pet to the noise trigger at elicits fear at so low of a level (volume) that the pet is calm and relaxed. Over time the noise is made louder, all the while staying below the dog’s threshold for fear and panic. Counter-conditioning is changing the pet’s emotional response to the noise trigger by associating it with something positive, such as a favorite treat or activity (ie playing fetch with a tennis ball). A head collar, such as a Gentle Leader ®, may be suggested for better control of the pet during DS/CC. Focus commands including eye contact and hand target commands may also be taught in preparation for DS/CC.

With some work and dedication noise phobias can be successfully treated and managed using behavior modification and in addition, sometimes anti-anxiety medications. For more information and to develop an individualized treatment plan for your pet please contact us at (925) 937-5000

Meredith Stepita, DVM, ACVB
Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behavior

When Your Dog Walks Turn Into a Game of “Tug-O-War”

   We (humans) are too slow for dogs and it is normal for dogs to pull on leash. Harnesses that attach to the leash on the back actually encourage pulling (think of sled dogs). If your dog is pulling on leash as part of an aggressive response, see our blog on aggression since the underlying cause always needs to be treated for your dog to be successful. If your dog is pulling without any stimuli present (I.E. they just pull all the time) here are some different ways to teach your dog to walk nicely on leash:

1. If your dog is pulling, stop walking and stand still. Wait until your dog stops pulling, and then begin walking again. In this exercise, walking again is the reward. You may also find yourself doing this several times in a short period of time.

2. Teach your dog a command that teaches him/her to focus on you such as an eye contact or hand target command. Then, use these commands to keep your dog at your side and reward him/her with treats and attention for following the commands. You can use this method to teach your dog to “heel”.

3. Walk forward with your dog on leash. Before he/she has the chance to pull call him/her back to you and give a reward. Repeat this, extending the time before you call him/her back to you (but before pulling occurs).

   Pick one of the techniques and be consistent. Set your dog up to succeed by starting inside in a non-distracting environment, such as your home. Then, add distractions in the house before working with your dog outside. A head collar can also be a useful tool to help with leash pulling as long as your dog does not have neck problems. The leash attaches under the chin, so when your dog pulls, the leash pulls their head to the side.

Here is a great video for introducing the head collar so that your dog likes (or at least tolerates) it:

Another useful tool that gives you some control, but not as much control as a head collar, is a harness that the leash attaches in the front (Easy Walk HarnessTM or SENSE-ation ® Harness).

If you feel that you and your dog would do better with a one-on-one personal treatment plan that would be customized to you and your life style, please feel free to give us a call and schedule a Behavior Consultation appointment: (925) 937-5000

– Dr. Meredith Stepita, Dipl. ACVB

No Dog Should Put Baby In A Corner

Many couples begin their lives together by “practicing” with a canine baby prior to having the human version, but the adjustment period may not always transition smoothly when bringing a new addition into the home. We get many phone calls from worried new parents regarding the relationship between dog and baby, so I asked Lisa, one of our registered veterinary technicians, to write a post on how to prepare the family dog for the arrival of a baby. Lisa has worked in animal training for fifteen years, and has a pack of very sweet and well-mannered pups in her life. Please welcome Lisa, our guest blogger:

Expecting a baby? What about the family dog?

In this blog, I will detail what I feel is important for expectant parents to do before the baby arrives to ensure the first baby of the house (the dog) is not overwhelmed and lost in the hustle.

No matter how well behaved or trustworthy you think your dog is, do not leave your dog alone with a child. Accidents happen, and it’s unfair to dog and child to be hurt or reprimanded, when the responsibility lies on you, the adult, to keep all members of your family safe.

7 steps before you bring home a new baby

Step 1: Have your dog(s) fully evaluated by a veterinarian. A healthy dog is a happy dog. You will have peace of mind knowing your baby will not “catch” anything from your dog. An exam should include parasite testing and prevention and an oral exam. For older dogs include blood work and arthritis evaluation. Dogs get cranky just as we do with flare-ups of arthritis, they can also have limited patience when they have metabolic imbalances.

Step 2: Prepare your dog months in advance for your baby’s arrival. Puppies and adult dogs can be overwhelmed by the smells, sounds and overall hustle with the arrival of a new baby. Playing CDs of baby noises on a daily basis will help your dog get use to these strange sounds. Wear and use baby powder, lotions, creams, wipes, and other baby products to help your dog become familiar with the scents. Bring out the stroller, crib, diapers, baby bottles, and anything else that would be part of the baby’s routine. Let the dog get use to them sitting and moving around the house, so when the baby comes home, the dog is already use to seeing, smelling and hearing these objects.

Step 3: Teach your dog what toys are his/hers and what toys are not. This will help prevent the dog from taking a toy from the baby and grabbing the hand accidentally. You have already had practice doing this with other items in the house such as the remote control, shoes, slippers, sun glasses etc. This is just an extension of his/her previous training.

Step 4: Attention transition: Your dog(s) are use to being the “babies”. You have lavished them with attention, toys and treats. They are not going to understand that it’s all going to change when the new baby arrives. If you are the mother of the baby and your dog is closer to you than other members of your household, transition your dog’s attention to another member in the house. Have the other person feed, walk and play with him/her more and more. By spending less time each day with your dog you can minimize the “jealousy” behavior of him/her vying for your attention when the baby is home.

Step 5: Create “No Dog Zones”. You and the baby need to have a room or two that is dog free. Start teaching this to your dog months in advance. Having a safe place to let your baby crawl on the floor or even eat without the dog being around will relieve you of the task of shooing him/her away. The use of baby gates is highly recommended.

Step 6: Create a mock routine of having the baby home. That means getting up every 2 hours around the clock, carrying a doll wrapped up, and sleeping in odd locations. You will be able to identify the problem areas well in advance of your baby’s arrival and be able to help your dog adjust in a positive way, keeping him/her as a loving family member.

Step 7: Plan ahead and have your dog away from the entrance to your home when you arrive with the new baby. It is recommended that the primary caregiver to the dog enter the house ahead of the baby, greet the dog and then have the baby enter. Your dog is excited to see you return home, and can get overly excited when you and the baby come in at the same time. Causing you to be protective of the baby and scold the dog for being excited…this can put the caution flags up for the dog, baby = punishment. This can create a negative association with each other, defeating the goal before you begin.

With slow and progressive changes your dog will adjust by the time the baby arrives and you will not need to struggle with your dog’s new behaviors while caring for your newborn.

A Dog Walk to Remember


I'm Nicholas, Your Guest Dog Blogger...Would That Make Me a Dlogger?

Hello, my name is Nicholas, and I am a pint sized mutt with a big personality. My mom normally writes this blog, but she has been so busy with school these days that I took her on a walk this morning and then told her to relax while I take over. I figured it was the least I could do since she rescued me from a shelter in San Francisco a little over two months ago. My life has been so much better now that I don’t have to worry about where my next bowl of kibble is coming from.

We decided to go to our local hangout, Newhall Park in Concord. I am new to the area, but I really like this place. It has nice pathways to walk on, plenty of trees to mark, and the best entertainment ever…squirrels!! So we arrived in the parking lot, and first things first, mom put my leash and harness on me (in Concord dogs must be leashed – it’s the law). She also got out the training treats she had packed, I overheard her telling my dad that she was going to “work with me on my barking problem,” while we were out on our walk. You see, I get a little too excited sometimes when I see other dogs, and well, I yell at them as they pass by. Sometimes I say bad words to the other dogs, for no reason at all… it’s like I can’t help myself. So once we were all ready, we started on the path around the park.

We left the parking lot and looped around all of the surrounding fields. There are always lots of my squirrel buddies on the shady paths in that part of the park. Mom forgot to grab a free Mutt Mitt from the dispenser near the parking lot, so I politely held it until she was able to bag up near the human bathrooms. There were no other dogs to yell at for the first part of the walk, so Mom called my name every so often and praised me with a treat, and a “good boy!”  every 50 yards or so. This helps Mom to get my attention when I start to see red around other dogs. She learned this trick from Maggie, one of the doctor’s assistants at Encina who knows a lot about training dogs (fun fact: she volunteers her behavioral skills at the shelter where my mom got me).

We stopped and paused at the duck pond so that I could say hi to some of the locals. I managed not to bark at them, but they were a little snobby and tended to waddle away with a brusque “quack” when I leaned in for a sniff. It was a very peaceful place, and there were a lot of humans relaxing on the benches near by. We were at the park for the business of blowing off steam though and had to keep our heart rates up, so we didn’t pause for too long.

After the duck ponds was the off-roading excursion that leads to what I call “The Big Hill.” I have heard my humans refer to it as “Memorial Hill.” Whatever it’s called, it sure is steep for someone of my stature. After a quiet walk surrounded by trees the path forks, and of course Mom didn’t want to go the easy way (neither did I). I usually struggle to walk next to my person like I’m supposed to, but it isn’t hard to slow the pace on the steep gravelly part of the climb.We walked by several dogs and Mom said my name and had me sit for a treat while they passed, which definitely distracted me from barking.

Once you reach the top it is heaven! I love to survey my “kingdom”, I can almost see all the way to my grandparents’ house in Benicia, and I can definitely see my dad’s house in Concord. The wind carries such great smells up there… fresh air, wild animals, and so much more. I want to run and play in the dry grasses, but Mom held me back today because she didn’t want me to get a foxtail stuck in my nose, eyes, or paws (see the bad stuff above in the second picture from the left). She also tried to keep my nose out of the numerous animal holes, but the rat terrier in me found them hard to resist. We took a moment of silence for the veterans of the Vietnam war (Mom said that happened even before she was born, so it must have happened a really long time ago), and started our descent.

Can you see the smile on my face?

The way down is a little slippery for humans, I definitely try to stay out of harm’s way in case my mom falls on the way down (she seems a bit klutzy to me). The best part about going downhill is that the dog park is the next and last stop on the walk. I still have some more training to do before I feel okay around other dogs, but we always stop in the entrance for a drink at the doggy drinking fountain. There are separate parks for big dogs (over 30 pounds) and little dogs (under 30 pounds), to help make sure everyone stays safe. I held in my barks even without treats, and got lots of praise on the way out. One woman even complimented Mom on how good I was, which made her laugh.

All in all, it was a great way to spend an hour of our morning together. I tried to ask for another meal when we got home, but even my cutest face didn’t work (can’t blame a guy for trying). So now that I am done blogging, I think I will take my afternoon nap in the office while Mom gets some work done. See you on our next adventure!

See you on the flip-side, it's nap time!