Dear Cathy: We have an almost eight-year-old, 35 pound mixed-breed dog. We’ve had him since he was eight-weeks-old. He’s a wonderful dog but has always had some psychological issues. For example, he refused to go near a new dog bed, and we had to return it. He shakes and shivers at my text alerts and during thunderstorms. For the past few weeks, he looks scared and refuses to eat or drink from his dog bowls. If I hold a bowl for him or move the bowls to a different room, he seems to eat or drink just enough stay alive. I haven’t changed the location of the bowls, the bowl holder, or the mat underneath them. What do I do? — Karen, Port Washington, New York
Dear Karen: While you can never fully rid your dog of all his fears and phobias, there are a few things you can do to temper his reactions.
First, get your dog a canine pheromone collar to wear, and place plug-in pheromones in the room where his food bowls are located. Pheromones provide a calming effect and can be helpful as we go through the next steps.
Second, rule out medical issues. I doubt he has any, but it’s always good to check. Then talk to your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication. Medication won’t eliminate his fears and phobias, but it can quiet his brain and make it easier to train and counter-condition him.
Next, train your dog to make eye contact on command. Say your dog’s name and when he makes eye contact, say a marker word (to mark the correct behavior), like “Bingo,” and give him a treat. Use this same technique to teach him sit, stay and down. The more you train a dog, the easier it is to counter-condition him to ignore a trigger.
Now it’s time to work on counter conditioning. Train your dog to get used to a similar sound to the phone alert, like the beep on the microwave. Every time the microwave dings, say his name so he makes eye contact and ask him to sit, using the marker word and treat. What you are trying to do is get his mind on other things and associate the sound with treats, so he will (eventually) ignore the trigger.
When you feel he has mastered the ding from the microwave, reintroduce the text alert sound and ask him to make eye contact and sit, using the marker word and treat. Initially, he might shake, but he should learn that something good happens when he hears this sound. (You also can just change the alert sound on your phone.)
You can counter condition him to thunderstorms by letting him listen to a recording of a thunderstorm at a low-volume, accompanied by treats. Increase the volume over days (not minutes) to increase his tolerance. As for new dog beds, toss your unlaundered clothing onto them, so the scent is suddenly familiar.
Most of all, be kind and patient as you go through this process. It can take months to help a dog work through these fears.
Dear Cathy: How can I transport my cat by car for a two-day trip, allowing for “bathroom” episodes? She won’t wear a leash so all I can depend on is using a litter box. I can’t stop and put the box by my car for use because she would dart away. Please help. It’s important. — Tom, Winter Park, Florida
Dear Tom: Put the litter box in your car or trunk and keep it covered, so it doesn’t spill out. When it’s time for your feline’s potty break, put the litter box on the seat or in the cargo area of your SUV and remove the wrap. Let her out of her travel kennel and remain in the car while you wait to see if she will use it. Don’t let other family members open and close car doors. She needs at least 10 minutes of quiet to feel safe using it. Cats don’t pee on command so this could take a while. If she appears interested in the litter box, give her the time she needs to relieve herself. If she doesn’t, then put her back in her kennel, and try again in a few hours. Most cats will use the litter box at least once a day during normal car travel. Otherwise, she will definitely use it when you get to a hotel and settle in for the night.
Cathy M. Rosenthal is a longtime animal advocate, author, columnist and pet expert who has more than 25 years in the animal welfare field. Send your pet questions, stories and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, city, and state. You can follow her @cathymrosenthal.