Henry and I live together in a single-family home. Henry is a 3-year-old wire fox terrier, and I am a crabby old man. We get along very well as long as we follow some basic rules.
One rule is that we don’t eat out of each other’s dish. I do well here, but Henry has a problem. If I leave some food out on the table or on a counter within his reach and I leave the room, he ignores the rule and gets the food.
The simple solution is not to leave food out, but I am often distracted or just inattentive.
Dear Michael Z.,
In my experience, most people refer to “ignores the rule and gets the food” as stealing. What I usually hear is, “That damn dog stole my dinner — again!” When you think about it, it’s more instinct than stealing. An animal in the wild, a street dog, will eat anything it can perceive as edible, as opposed to us humans who make reservations at restaurants based on food we especially like.
We two-leggeds have about 9,000 taste buds and dogs have about 2,000; that’s why we’ve all seen dogs eat crap, literally. Henry needs to have a conversation with the Dog God. The Dog God (TDG) sees all, all the time, and chastises those who break the rules. Dogs primarily live in the moment, so timing is critical. TDG uses entrapment. Nuke a hot dog or fry a small piece of meat; create meat smell! Now take a small plastic container with a top, put a bunch of holes in it, then the meat. You definitely don’t want Henry to be able to self-reward by getting the meat, but you do want him trying.
Now place a mirror so that you can see the meat, and Henry at the meat, but Henry can’t see you. You have in your hand an empty soda can with 12 coins in it and a piece of Scotch tape over the opening so the coins don’t fall out. Put the container with the meat down, and walk out of the room to peruse the mirror. Henry will think he’s won the lottery when you leave the room. The moment he goes for the meat, say nothing, just throw the can near him, and watch him screw himself through the ceiling in startlement. Mike, this has nothing to do with you, it’s between Henry and TDG. Henry needs to get the negative association with taking the food, not you.
The soda can can be any kind of sound that surprises Henry when he’s “stealing.” An air horn, two pots banging: whatever works. Some serious obedience training for Henry might be a good idea. When it comes to wire foxes, I usually have good news and bad news. The good news — they’re real smart. The bad news — they’re real smart.
I have a 20-pound 10-year-old mixed breed who is a lovely companion. However, if he has a tick on him, he will bite me rather than let me take it off. He also gets quite aggressive over a food item he finds on the ground, rather than letting me take it away. Is it too late to modify this behavior?
You have a lovely companion — let’s call him LC. LC is lovely all the time, with two exceptions. If the two exceptions were jumping on the couch that he’s not allowed on and occasionally barking at dogs that appear on the TV, you probably wouldn’t have written to me. But the exceptions you’re referring to entail real aggression, the worst type of behavioral issue.
Is it too late to modify this behavior? Absolutely not. For the possessive aggression, or resource guarding over food items he finds on the street, he needs to be taught two commands. “Leave it!” is the first one. You see the chicken bone or pizza crust on the ground, and tell LC to “Leave it!” before he picks it up, and he ignores the potential forbidden treat. But then real life enters the equation, and he grabs the the chicken bone that you didn’t notice on the ground, which requires the “Drop it!” command. With this command, he drops it on the ground without you bleeding in the effort to take it out of his mouth.
If you have a Lab that likes to retrieve balls but doesn’t like to relinquish the ball, I would tell you to put one hand under his mouth and offer him a treat with the other hand as you say “Drop it.” The Lab will quickly learn what “drop it” means, and cooperate. But in the case of LC and dogs like him, the attitude is often, “I’ll kill you before I let you take this bone away from me!” That’s why you really need the help of a pro to convince LC that when you say “Drop it,” he understands that it’s not a suggestion or optional, it’s a command, an important one. Important because it can save his life if he picks up a sweet-smelling box of mouse poison or a tasty painkiller pill meant for a 90-pound dog when he’s only 20 pounds.
As for his refusal to let you remove ticks, that too is important, for obvious reasons. The aggression he presents when you want to take a tick off him is fear or dominant aggression, often a combination of the two. Start by showing LC the tick-remover tool and offering him a treat. Then graduate to touching him with the tool on different parts of his body as you offer him treats. Get it to the point where he feels the tool pinch him a little bit as you’re praising him happily and giving him treats.
This is all great if you have the tickless time to desensitize him. But here’s your probable reality. He’s not yet desensitized, and comes home with a bunch of ticks which you have to get off him. I’d show him a long sock or stocking, let him sniff it as you give him a treat. Then kind of pet him and stroke him with it, working your way to his face, keeping your voice and attitude light and happy. Then wrap it around his snout twice, pulling it tight enough so he can’t open his mouth, and tie it behind his ears, making it a temporary muzzle. Then remove the ticks, keeping your voice and attitude firm, loving, and happy. Initially, you’ll probably need the help of a second person to hold him while you remove the ticks. Once again, I’d suggest the help of a pro to get him accepting of this type of handling.