Karen Overall Answers, Decoding Dogs


This week, your questions are answered by renowned veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall, the Philadelphia, PA-based contributing author to “Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2014; $27). Overall is also the author of a far more technical book for professionals, the “Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats” (Elsevier, St. Louis, MO, 2013; $72.75). She is a world-renowned researcher and frequent speaker about animal behavior.

Q: Our neighbors complain because our 2-year-old Scottie lives to bark at squirrels. We’ve tried to distract her but it’s impossible. We don’t want to use a shock collar. Any ideas? — F.F., St. Paul, Minn.

A: “To a terrier, a squirrel is merely an upscale rat,” says Overall. Barking at squirrels “is normal behavior; this is what these dogs were bred to do,” she notes. “Having said that, I understand the need to moderate the behavior. I am glad you realize the shock collar is not a solution, but instead would only agitate your dog and exasperate your problem.”

Overall adds, “Rather than change the dog’s behavior, it might be easier to adjust the squirrels’.” You could put out a feeder for the squirrels to draw them away from the house, or another side of the house where the dog isn’t as likely to spot them, she suggested.

A product called Treat ‘N Train might help your dog. This device dispenses food (via remote control) for quiet behavior. Locate it away from windows where squirrels are visible. Treat ‘N Train, which can run $100 (depending on where you buy) is available online and at many specialty pet stores.


Q: Our Coton de Tulear (a small breed similar to a Bichon Frise) barks like crazy at houseguests as they try to leave our home. What should we do? — A.G., Las Vegas, NV

A: “I’m assuming this (behavior) isn’t scary or injurious to people,” says Overall. “Instead, the dog is just carrying on. There are several possible explanations, including that this is an attention-seeking behavior, or that the dog is actually afraid but (thinks) chasing intruders from the rear is a good strategy. It’s also possible the dog just enjoys causing a ruckus. To determine exactly why it’s happening, you really need to bring in a professional, or videotape (the behavior) to show your veterinarian.”

You could put a leash on your dog to prevent the pet from chasing guests, but the dog will still bark. Perhaps, if you give your pup something to chew on this will minimize the yapping. Overall suggests this is another possible case for the use of Treat ‘N Train.


Q: Our 2-year-old Morkie attacks people and other dogs whenever they come to our door, and when we take walks. He scratches and growls at everyone. He’s bitten people before. How can we stop this behavior? — S.R., via cyberspace

A: “It’s important to discontinue giving your dog any possible opportunity to do anyone harm, which may ultimately save his life,” Overall notes. “You do need hands-on help from a qualified professional.” You may begin with a veterinary behaviorist.

Meanwhile, keep your dog behind a closed door (several rooms away from wherever people are), and when he’s outdoors, your Morkie should be muzzled.


Q: Our 17-month-old Maltese is urine marking indoors, even though he does his business outside. What’s going on? — J.D., Spartanburg, SC

A:  Overall wants to know if your dog is truly marking (as in territorial marking) or voiding due to a full bladder.

Does this dog just have to go?” she wonders. “Keep in mind that when a dog this size has a full bladder, it’s about the size of an apricot.

Overall also wants to know where the dog is marking. She recalls a pooch she had who began to spray on a plant Overall had moved indoors over the winter.

“Also, I want to know what this dog’s behavior is like, particularly just before marking,” she says. “Is he patrolling the perimeter of the living room, for example, and acting concerning, constantly looking out the window because he’s worried? A small amount of anti-anxiety medication may help.”

Overall, also suggests visiting your veterinarian to rule out any medical explanation, such as urinary bladder stones or a chronic urinary tract infection. Also, is the dog neutered? An intact male dog will mark territory.

It’s very important to understand when your dog has the accidents. If this behavior occurs only when family members aren’t home, the pet may have separation anxiety. Overall co-authored the chapter on separation anxiety in “Decoding Your Dog.” The book offers details on how to determine if your dog has this problem and offers lots of behavior modification tips.

Of course, it’s important to clean up after your dog without leaving a lingering scent. Overall is a fan of Fabreeze, which she says chemically bonds to urine, although any enzymatic cleaner can help. Test on a corner of fabric before using any product.

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