Raise your hand if this scenario sounds familiar: You walk in your door after a long workday and your four-legged friend barks like crazy, eagerly welcoming her favorite human home.
Or this one: Your friends come over for a Friday night dinner party, only to be greeted by the paws of your friendly pup, excitedly jumping up to say hello.
For dog owners, these scenes are so common that they’re among the top complaints received by San Diego Humane Society’s Behavior Helpline. If, like the dozens of pet owners who call the hotline each month, you’d like to correct some of your canine’s not-so-stellar behavior, read on for tips from Lizz Sevin, behavior modification coordinator at the SDHS Behavior Center.
Helpline Hot Topic #1:
“Most of the barking that people complain about is when someone enters the house, which is considered ‘alarm barking.’ The dog will calm down once the people are inside,” Sevin says. Dogs get really excited when their humans come home—they’ve been waiting all day to be reunited! “There’s an anticipation of fun things happening when you come home, and dogs express their excitement by barking,” she continues. But if this excitement is over the top, it can grate on the ears, nerves and neighbors. To reduce the noise, keep the dog gated or separated in another room away from the door and wait until she calms down to greet her. “Rather than you greeting your dog with excitement, be mellow. Calmly enter, get yourself settled, and then pay attention to your dog.”
Helpline Hot Topic #2:
Dogs can be overly reactive to other dogs when they’re frustrated. They want to play! This is where the importance of socialization comes in. Sevin suggests setting up play dates with the neighborhood dogs, taking your dog to the dog park, or enrolling him in a playgroup. “It’s really important to get in some playtime,” she says. If your dog really doesn’t get along with others—is aggressive or uncomfortable in close proximity—keep high-value treats handy when you’re on walks and give your dog a treat when he sees another dog. This will help him create a positive association with dog-to-dog interactions.
Helpline Hot Topic #3:
“We get many calls from people with 2- or 3-year-old dogs who haven’t been properly housetrained,” Sevin says. “The caller might say his male dog is marking in the house or sneaking behind the couch to go.” This is the time to go back to basics: Don’t let the dog loose in the house without supervision; crate him when you can’t have eyes on him. If you’re going to be moving around the house, tether a leash to you so the pup is with you at all times. And when he goes to the bathroom outside, reward, reward, reward. “The big thing we emphasize is not punishing your dog for going inside the house,” she adds. “Then all he learns is not to go in front of the person who’s yelling.” While she says many people don’t want to crate their dog, three weeks to a month of crating is worth it for a lifetime of a housetrained, happy pet.
Helpline Hot Topic #4:
If your dog has boundless energy—or is destructive in the house—she needs more exercise. “Many people adopt high-energy Labradors or pit bulls, who are historically great family dogs, but they’re also working dogs—they need a job to do,” Sevin says. “And if you don’t give them a job, they’re going to employ themselves.” Their “employment” might mean digging in the yard, destroying the couch, or barking all day long. Instead, give your dog things to stimulate her body and mind. Take her to the park for 20 minutes before you go to work; put her breakfast in a food puzzle or frozen Kong toy so she has to work for it. “The importance of both mental and physical enrichment cannot be overlooked.”
Finally, Sevin says that despite the old saying, you can teach an old dog new tricks—with a little training and patience.
“People need to remember when they’re adopting a dog that they do have an animal in the house,” she concludes. “Go in with your eyes open and be prepared that there may be behavior concerns. But there are also many resources available to you. Ask the shelter about puppy or dog classes or trainer availability, so you can nip any problem in the bud right away. Remember, all dogs are individuals and will express themselves in different ways.”
San Diego Humane Society’s Behavior Helpline can be reached at
619-299-7012 extension 2244 or via the “Ask a Trainer” link on sdhumane.org.
Fighting or Fun?
Growling while playing tug-of-war. Mouth-open wrestling. Endless chasing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if these games are all in good fun or if they’re warning signs of trouble ahead. Sevin explains five easy ways to tell when it’s all fun and games:
Role reversal: If they’re chasing, they take turns; if they’re wrestling, they’ll swap who is on top
Play bowing: Lifting of paws in a playful “boxing” maneuver
A bouncy run
A relaxed face
“Pay less attention to noise—a lot of dogs are just noisy when they play—and pay more attention to body language,” she says. “And remember: A wagging tail doesn’t always mean a dog is happy. But as long as that wag is low, wiggly and loose, it’s a positive sign.”
The most common concern among cat owners by far is litter box use—whether it’s first-time training or reinforcement. Michelle Stolte, manager of the SDHS Behavior Center, offers these tips:
Keep the litter box in a safe, quiet place, separate from the cat’s food and water
If your cat stops using the box, assess what else has changed in his environment: Is the litter different? Is there unusual stress on the cat—a houseguest, a new animal?
Go back to basics any time he needs reinforcement
“Cats like consistency,” Stolte says. “Keep in mind that when you bring a cat home, it may take up to three weeks for him to get comfortable. Give him his space—a tiny room, food and water, and the litter box in a safe space.”