Stump the Dogfather

The Dogfather has some ideas to help Mona, who gets very excited when guests visit. — Photo by Jamie Stringfellow

Tom Shelby, a dog trainer since 1972, is our Dogfather. He recently relocated to Oak Bluffs after a long career in New York where he did guard dog training, obedience training, and volunteered his time to dogs with behavioral issues that had recently been adopted from kill shelters. He is currently finishing his second book, “Dog Trainer Diaries.”

Do you have questions for the Dogfather? Email them to and see them answered online at

Dear Dogfather,

I have a cockapoo named Bella who has separation anxiety. The first two years of her life she never made a sound, I mean no sound at all, no barking, no crying, etc. When I moved from a rural area to the city, she finally found her voice and barked for the first time. From that point on, she developed separation anxiety, and every time I leave her she lets out this very high-pitched howling sound that could wake the dead. It goes on for about 5-10 seconds. I feel awful when I leave her. Is there anything I can do to alleviate her anxiety?

-Painful Ears in Edgartown

Dear Painful Ears in Edgartown,

You said you feel awful about leaving her. The first thing you need to do is lose your guilt. I’m pretty sure Bella is lucky to have you as family. You share your life with her. Think about it. You provide for all her needs: love, food, shelter, play, medical care, exercise, companionship. The relationship, however, is symbiotic. In addition to unconditional love, she lives in harmony with you by not eating your couch or urinating on your rug or biting your friends. You should feel the same guilt that a husband feels when he leaves his wife home to run to the store to get milk. None.

First thing: “De-emotionalize” leaving and coming. Totally. No long goodbyes, just, “See ya later Bella,” and walk out. When you come back later, be it five minutes or 15 hours, it’s a casual “Hi” and a casual pet, and go put on a cup of tea. Make leaving and coming as unemotional as possible.

Next thing: “Special toys.” If the only time on planet Earth that Bella gets “people” food is when she’s left alone, she might be a little more amenable to your departure. I’m not suggesting that you toss her a steak from the Square Rigger every time you leave. Get three sterilized hollow marrow bones from a pet supply store and stuff a small piece of any kind of meat in one, a small piece of cheese in another and some peanut butter in the third. Let her have them when you leave her alone but – very important – remove them when you return. Otherwise they will lose their specialness. You can also try “hunting.” I do it with my dog MacDuff when I leave. I psyche him up by saying, ” Wanna go hunting?” and toss a half dozen crumb size treats into the room for him to find as I walk out the door. He now loves it when I leave.

Classic harpsichord music is most relaxing to dogs. Also try a DAP collar or a diffuser that plugs into the wall. It stands for “dog appeasing pheromone” and often helps reduce anxiety. There is also a drug that is FDA approved for dogs for separation anxiety called Clomicalm, for which Bella does not sound like a candidate. However, if Bella’s anxiety increased I would start a program of desensitizing her to your leaving before resorting to any drug. That’s more complicated and would require another whole column. Good luck.

-The Dogfather

Dear Dogfather,

My little dog Mona is a loving dog who gets so excited that she jumps up on people coming into the house. Because she is small and unthreatening (she’s a 17-pound Boston Terrier who has given birth to 11 children), people inevitably kneel down to return the greeting. At that point, Mona tries to “kiss” them on the mouth, which delights some people, but often results in them getting nipped a bit. (Mona uses her teeth when she kisses). She has drawn blood a few times. Just a small amount, but still… She also has the ability to jump up and pull a glove off someone’s hand by latching on to a single finger and pulling, which seems like a talent, but is annoying to visitors.

No amount of “Down Mona” works, it seems. After someone is in the house for 20 or so minutes she calms down and starts looking for new people to adore. We’re afraid this will end badly, with a real injury (or a lawsuit.) But we don’t want to change Mona’s personality.

What should we do, Dogfather?

-Anxious in OB

Dear Anxious in OB,

Several years ago I trained the dog of a high powered psychiatrist in NYC. The dog was not close to being housebroken and had no manners whatsoever. Her name was Puppy and she was nine years old. I kind of enjoyed the shrink’s surprise when I pointed out the correlation between the name Puppy and the fact that Puppy never grew up. I’ve found similar patterns with dogs named Baby, not to mention the patterns of aggression in dogs named Jaws, Satan, Killer, Trouble, etc.

I think you need to look realistically at your euphemisms. Kisses don’t cause bleeding. Ripping gloves off people’s hands is the same “talent” as a large dog tearing off someone’s shirt. By “looking for new people to adore” I think you mean new people to “annoy.” And you’re absolutely right about a possible lawsuit – this is America, land of litigation.

Training is not about stifling a personality, it’s about redirecting enthusiasm from unwanted behavior to desired behaviors. Regardless of how small a dog is, jumping on people is unacceptable, unless invited to do so. At this point, no such invitations for Mona.

Mona needs to be taught to stop jumping on people, to come when called, to stay when told, to lie down on command, and most importantly: teeth and flesh are a no-no. Most of these things are going to need to be taught to Mona by a pro.

However, I suggest the following when you have guests: The visitor folds her arms and stands straight up at a slight angle to Mona and you say “Off” once, then the visitor turns to stone and totally ignores her until she stops jumping. Do not keep repeating “Off” as it will lose its power if she keeps jumping while you’re saying it. And she will keep jumping. If you put your key in your front door that it opened a thousand times and it all of a sudden doesn’t work, what’s your response? Undoubtedly you’re going to jiggle the key harder and harder until it works, or until you realize it’s not going to work and you quit.

Mona will probably keep jumping for several minutes. Stay the course. Ignore her until she quits, then offer a calm “good girl” and have the guest enter. As the owner you need to do the same thing when you come home. It will probably take a good three weeks of a truly consistent response on your part and your guests until the jumping behavior is extinguished.

When Mona starts to look for other people to “adore,” try redirecting her to an interesting toy such as a Kong with a little peanut butter or an interactive toy with treats. She’ll still be the same happy, comedic Mona, but also a well mannered lady. Good luck.

-The Dogfather