Ask the Dogfather: Trainer Tom Shelby helps you figure out Fido


Dear Dogfather:

My Boston Terrier Angus is a gem. He’s smart as a whip, affectionate, and great around other animals. There’s one problem: When he meets new people, or greets people who make a big deal over him, he sometimes squirts a bit on the floor, often on their feet. We’re allowed to have dogs at work on Fridays, but I end up walking around with a spray bottle and paper towels for the first 20 minutes, so I’ve stopped bringing him, which is a bummer because in every other way he’s such a good dog and people love him.

It seems like a nervous reaction – he was housebroken in a week and, except when he’s sick, never has an accident.

The vet said he would either outgrow this or not. This was 11 years ago. He’s still not outgrown it. Is there anything we can do or just love him the way he is and stand by with paper towels when guests arrive?

Oh, and one more thing.

Aside from occasionally sprinkling on them, Angus is great around kids of almost all ages. I say kids of almost all ages because he’s not very tolerant of children under three. Once at Halloween, a woman had her infant — dressed as a lamb — in her arms, and Angus kept jumping for the child. He’d never done anything like it before or since. Twice, crawling toddlers have caused him to growl and in one case, nip.

Three incidents in 11 years isn’t bad. No one was hurt and no one was sued. When young kids ask to pet him, which they have done hundreds of times, it works out fine, but I still hold my breath.

What’s the deal, Dogfather?  Why do you think he’s responded to nippers like this? Should I stop allowing kids to pet him?

Thank you,

BGO, aka Baffled in OB

Dear Baffled BGO,

Take heart. Pretty soon your friends won’t have to wear rain pants and waterproof shoes to come for a visit. And you’ll be greeting them with wine instead of paper towels and vinegar. You’re right about it not being a housebreaking problem.

It’s called “nervous wetting.” Lots of people call it “happy pee,” although no one is happy about it. Actually, in the canine world it’s a polite way for a dog to greet what it considers a higher authority, and for the “soft” dog, it’s the way of an ingratiating, friendly hello.

So, the more emotional the visitor is (you know the type, the guest who enters and gushes all over the dog), the more emotional the nervous wetting response, the more to clean. The worst thing would be to chastise the dog because then he’ll pee more trying to appease your obvious displeasure.

Add to that the fact that dogs are tremendous creatures of habit, and Angus has been at it for 11 years. The oldest nervous wetter I can remember being asked to help was a nine-year-old lab. So it’s not an overnight fix.

First order of business, BGO, are your friends. Henceforth, they enter your house without acknowledging Angus, basically ignoring him. At most, a split second of fleeting eye contact with Angus coupled with a half second “Hi Angus” and smile. That’s it. Same goes for family. If the pesky brother refuses to cooperate, hand him the paper towel and bottle at the door and walk away. As the emotion at the door decreases, so will Angus’s reaction.

Couple this with a polite, what I call “door routine” when visitors arrive, and you’re golden. Angus will need some obedience training for this routine.

As for his anxiety with kids under three, it’s not terribly uncommon. Dogs that are not socialized and exposed to the sporadic body language and gestures and sounds of toddlers may be alarmed by what they perceive as “unusual” behavior. Homeless drunks often elicit an “alarmed” response based on their “different” behavior.

At this point, at age 11, it’s unlikely Angus will ever get used to the “Frankenstein” lurch of one-year-olds learning to walk, or eight-month-olds crawling toward him while screeching. My suggestion, when asked if it’s okay for baby to pet the dog, respond, “He’s not used to little kids.” Or better yet, BGO, become the candy BGO. Have treats on you, and when you meet kids and deem it feasible, ask the kid if he’d like to give the dog a treat. If enough toddlers end up giving Angus “candy” (dog treats) he may get acclimated to the aberrant behavior quicker, and may actually like to meet the little ones. Good luck.

The Dogfather

Dear Dogfather,

My situation is one that I am considering getting a dog, but I have birds. Two parrots inside, in cages in their own room, as well as an outdoor aviary with chickens and a peacock.

What breed would work best at not injuring a bird? I know labs will be gentle with a bird in their mouths, but I don’t want a big dog. Are there smaller breeds that might not salivate when they look at birds? Chickens included?

I’d prefer a small dog, if that helps.

Any help would be much appreciated. Thank you.

-Wondering in West Tisbury

Hi Wondering in West Tisbury,

I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed quite a few bird/dog relationships. Fortunate because, not only are the birds beautiful, many of the parrots are also a lot smarter than most of the dogs.

On the positive side, a bird-friendly dog can be a boon to the quality of life for both bird and dog. I worked with three boxers that lived with an African Grey parrot and l loved watching their interaction. The Grey toyed with the boxers and with stub tails vibrating they loved being manipulated. Grey would fly from his perch to land on the kitchen floor and then tell the boxers to “Go” and herd them into a room and tell them to sit, which they did. When one of the dogs was too slow the parrot gave a short screech and the dog sat as quickly as a Marine’s salute. And all the time stub tails were ecstatic. It was great fun to watch.

Then there was the parrot that imitated the doorbell, and then, imitating the dog’s owner screamed at the hapless mini schnauzer for running to the door and barking. It took a noise activated tape recorder to figure out why the poor dog was getting more and more nervous every day.

There are several types of aggression and the one to worry about here is predatory aggression. The puppy that chases the blowing leaf is presenting it. The movement of the leaf represents prey and the dog gives chase. All dogs have it in them, the question is to what intensity. My Doberman Michelle pretty much ignored the woodland creatures she came across, and she loved our two parakeets. Almost every day at some point she would stand under the cage and whine for a minute. Then she would lie down as we opened the cage and the birds immediately flew down to her and sat on her, usually on her head. It was a beautiful thing to watch. On the other hand, my Doberman Mikey slaughtered everything he could catch.

If a purebred is a must I can tell you from my experience with a Cavalier King Charles spaniel that I had for 10 years that he was great with all creatures. He and Michelle were like brother and sister and we also had a couple of peacocks that harmonized with them. But that doesn’t mean another Cavalier won’t go after the birds.

Whatever dog you get you need to bring it to the birds (on a leash) and see how it acts in their presence. If it’s calm and totally non aggressive, in terms of the birds, you have a “keeper.” If you’re not intending to take the dog on the same day it meets the birds you may want to take a few feathers and put them under where the dog sleeps. The smell might enhance a positive association the dog has with the birds. Best of luck.

The Dogfather

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