Dear Dogfather: Elvis the elder and Mollie aflutter

Elvis the elderly Shitzu, and Mollie’s fear of airplanes

Cats can be good companions for aging dogs, but the parents of the elderly Elvis were still worried. — Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Chris

Tom Shelby, dog trainer to MV and NYC celebrities (and their dogs), answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels “Loving parents” who wonder what they can do to make their elderly Shitzu “Elvis” less lonely during the day, and Cynthia in West Tisbury, whose dog Mollie is afraid of jets in the sky. Got a question for the Dogfather? Contact him here.

Dear Dogfather,

My wife and I are “parents ” of an adopted rescued dog from a hurricane situation many years ago. He, Elvis, an 11-year old Shitzu, is now going deaf and blind. Because of our work schedules and situations we cannot bring him to work as we used to. He is fine at home during the day as we manage to be able to make midday visits for walks, snacks and water.

He has a “sister” cat that often cuddles, grooms him and stays with him during the day; they have a lot of interaction, as we have seen it on time off, lunch check-ins, etc. But we wonder if there is anything we can do for him to make sure he is as happy as he used to be before he started to lose these senses. We feel badly that his days with or without us (weekends etc.) he seems to just want to sleep. He does not seem distressed, but any advice on how to keep a deaf, blind and good friend happy and more active would be great.

Thank you,

Loving dog parents

Dear Loving Dog Parents,

Years ago a vet called to tell me that one of her patients, a 6-year old Shih-Tzu, went blind from sudden retinal degeneration. She said the dog’s owner was “turning the poor thing into a basket case from smothering it in pity.”

On my first visit I made an analogy, reversing the situation. I said to the lady, “Let’s say you go blind at age 30 and get a seeing-eye dog to be your eyes. Is that dog going to show you any pity? Not a drop! That dog’s attitude is going to be, ‘You’re blind, that’s why I’m here; Let’s get started making you more independent and self sufficient.'”

So it must be with you. Pity never helps, it only weakens! Loving Dog Parents, I suggest you get carpet runners (1 to 3 ft. wide) and lay them so that they connect all of Elvis’ favorite places; from his bed to the spots where he likes to hang out, to where he eats and drinks, to where he exits the house. Then place a drop of vanilla extract along the edges of the runners every few feet. This scented path throughout the house safely leads to all the safe zones and will make him more confident and relaxed.

Then place a drop of lemon extract on the danger zones, table and chair legs, furniture and wall corners, etc. If there are stairs I would suggest a third scent on the edge of the risers. If you don’t want to carry him on the stairs he has to be taught, “Going up and Going down” with a leash and harness, probably best taught by a pro.

If Elvis is not totally deaf there are high frequency devices that he can be taught to respond to. A vibration collar can be very effective in teaching a deaf dog several responses. Again, probably best taught by a pro. Thumping a particular item on the floor a certain amount of times can be an effective teaching method. For example, the vibration of hitting a wooden floor with a broomstick three times might indicate time to go out, or twice for dinner, etc. Elvis is lucky to have you guys, so remember, plenty of love, but no pity.

Good luck,

The Dogfather

Dear Dogfather,

I have a lab-mix dog named Mollie who becomes very anxious when jets fly way overhead.  The jets are silent until they are more than half way across the sky, but their contrails are obvious. My dog seems anxious (whines and comes to me for comfort) even in the house.  Outside, she stares at the sky and then runs in the house whining.  What is going on?   Cynthia in West Tisbury

Dear Cynthia in West Tisbury,

Imagine you have a cat that’s been using the litter box for five years and then suddenly, for no apparent reason, refuses to use it, resulting in your having to clean a lot of unwanted pees and poops. Now imagine that the whole house is under constant video and sound surveillance and when you check the video you see exactly what happened. Just as pussy was in the litter box squatting to pee a truck outside backfires very loudly and startles the cat so severely that she leaps from the box, never to return. She associated the sound of the explosion with the litter box, and it’s a done deal.

Now lets get real. Most people don’t have their whole house, never mind the litter box under surveillance. So in this case, one day pussy stops using her proper WC and you’ll never really know why.

Cynthia, I understand that you got this lab mix from the pound (makes you one of the good guys in my eyes) and that her name is Mollie, and you have no real history on her. The likelihood is that something traumatized her when she happened to hear and or see a jet flying overhead. It could have been anything from stepping on a nail just as she became aware of the plane to being attacked by another dog just at that moment, whatever.

So what to do? Let’s start with what not to do. Please do not comfort her with love and petting and telling her it’s OK. You may actually be rewarding the fear response, exacerbating the problem. Look upwards a lot and hopefully you see the plane first, at which point you start praising her with great enthusiasm and feeding her people food treats (the only time she gets chicken or steak or bologna is when planes are overhead) giving her a new,  positive association with the metal birds. Be aware that she may hear them when you don’t, as a dog’s hearing is far more acute than ours. Also, be very aware of your timing. If Molly starts showing fear, don’t keep giving her treats, rather continue walking while being upbeat and enthusiastic. “Wow Molly, aren’t those planes cool? Don’t you wish you could fly too!?”

Good Luck

The Dogfather