Dogcharmer: No coffee for you, pardner

The blender and coffee grinder speak to Fiona’s genetics.

Fiona's herding instinct seems to be triggered by the sound of kitchen appliances. — Courtesy Tom Shelby

Hi, Tom,

I hope this note finds you thriving!

Years ago you helped us with our rescue Leela when we lived in Island Cohousing, and then we got you connected with that community to help with dogs in general. I’m contacting you now because we have another rescue with whom we could use your help.

Fiona is from Arkansas; she’s about 3 years old, and we’ve had her just over two years. We had Embark dog DNA done — she’s 3/8 Aussie cattle dog, 1/5 border collie, and 1/5 rat terrier, plus traces of other breeds. She’s about 35 pounds. She was super-quiet when we got her, but gradually became comfortable in the house and our 1-acre fenced yard. She would get agitated and bark when Jill used the SodaStream water carbonation unit, but Jill gradually trained her to stop. But more recently she has expanded this behavior to me, starting when I use the blender or coffee grinder. She alerts whenever I go to the refrigerator or freezer. And she does the cattle dog darting in and nipping at my heels, as well as making a bunch of squealing and barking. We think it is a game for her, and it has to do with me, because when I was gone for a while last month, Jill mimicked the steps I go through to use the blender to make a smoothie, and Fiona was not reactive at all.

Please let us know if this is something you can help with, and if so, how you proceed during COVID (we are fortunate to both be vaccinated at this point). We could make a short video one morning of the situation and send that to you, if that helps.


Dear Marc,

Wow! It seems like Fiona’s genetics are really presenting themselves here. Between two herding dogs and the terrier, the appliance sounds seem to elicit a herding response coupled with a rat-killing terrier’s intensity. Assuming you’re not going to get a barn and fill it with sheep so Fiona can satisfy her herding instincts while keeping the barn free of rats, there are several ways you can go here. One is positive redirection, in another room or the kitchen. Bring her to her bed in another room and give her a hollow marrow bone with a piece of meat wedged in the middle. You might find she is more interested in getting at the meat, as opposed to herding you to nowhere in the kitchen. Initially, a gate preventing her from getting in the kitchen may be the deciding factor in her preferring the “special treat” over barking at the gate.

Or you can designate a spot for her in the kitchen to work at the meat-laden bone while you play your appliance music. At first it may require her leash being tied down to keep her in her spot with the bone. If she complies and prefers the bone to the herding, it will at the same time desensitize her to the appliance noises, making her much less reactive to them. Not to mention that she may come to love it when you use the blender or grind coffee, because it will represent her getting a “special treat.”

You can also start a desensitization program where you record the sounds of the appliances and have her lie on her bed while you give her treats as you play the sounds softly enough for her to hear but not get agitated. With success building on success, increase the volume as she gets the treats for staying calm.

If redirecting doesn’t lessen her herding zeal, she needs to learn to cooperate with the command “Leave it!” Be it a squirrel or your doughnut on the coffee table, when she hears “Leave it,” she must turn away from or ignore the distraction or temptation. She must also learn to respect “Uh-uh,” which is my way of saying no to a behavior I wish to extinguish. I don’t use the word no because I’ve met too many dogs who thought their name was “No,” or “No Bad Dog.” If Fiona’s kitchen-noises response verges on obsessive-compulsive, I’d suggest you get a competent trainer to teach her “Leave it” and “Uh-uh.”

The fact that she was recently nonreactive to Jill in the kitchen makes it likely that it’s somewhat of a game with her, and she’ll be fine with redirection. Or simply have a leash on her and give it a slight jerk as you say “Uh-uh” when she acts up, otherwise keeping no pressure on the leash. The split-second she shuts up after the leash jerk, tell her “Good girl,” and continue on as if nothing happened.

Good luck
The Dogcharmer

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