Animal Behavior Clinic

Behavior Problem Case Reports

Status-Related (Dominance Aggression)
Dan, an 8-year-old, male, neutered, English Springer Spaniel

Presenting Complaint
Dan’s owners consulted Tufts’ Animal Behavior Clinic via the clinic’s PETFAX consultation service regarding aggression (growling, snarling, snapping) the dog directed toward the husband and the wife. Dan had not bitten either one of them, but the severity of the challenges was escalating and the variety of situations in which he would threaten his owners was increasing. The owners estimated that Dan was approximately 1 1/2 years of age when he first began to challenge them. In the beginning, the incidents were sporadic and occurred when the dog was disturbed while resting or when they summoned him to follow a command to move from a particular location. Dan would growl at the wife every time she tried to pet him. The threats (growl, snarl) were brief and afterwards the dog obeyed a command if the owners insisted. Over time, Dan began to challenge both owners in a variety of situations and the intensity of his threats was increasing. At the time of the consult, Dan had bitten the wife when she tried to physically remove him from the couch when he was resting. He began to challenge the owners when they attempted to restrain or pet him, if they tried to remove delicious food or stolen items from his possession. He would lunge and snap if they attempted to physically correct any misbehavior.

Dan was most strongly bonded to the wife, who spent the most time with him. She had never set limits for the dog's behavior and tended to treat him as a human child. The dog was often allowed on her lap and she engaged in frequent holding and kissing of the dog. The husband spent time with Dan in the evening and on weekends. The husband also indulged the dog and adjusted his behavior according to Dan’s whims.

Treatment Rationale
Threats were predictable in specific situations and served a purpose for the dog. It also appeared that he had been rewarded for the behavior, as the owners were inconsistent with their corrections and often allowed the dog to continue with the behavior they had tried to correct. The behavior was interpreted as being consistent with a diagnosis of status-related (dominance) aggression.

Treatment Recommendations
In order to optimize Dan’s management, the owners were instructed to increase Dan’s supervised daily aerobic exercise by 20 minutes, at minimum. We also discussed “click and treat training” as a means to encourage positive training techniques and also to expand their training repertoire. Physical punishment was strongly discouraged as a means of correction.

Avoiding confrontations, using obedience commands or a head halter when the owners’ encountered difficulty were the preferred strategies. We discussed the importance of providing a predictable daily schedule for interactions with Dan since if he knew what to expect he would be more relaxed and less demanding. Finally, the owners were advised to train Dan to wear a basket muzzle so they would be prepared for any future difficult situations. Avoiding future confrontations is key to curing a dominance aggression problem. Each time a dog challenges a human and “wins,” the unwanted behavior is reinforced. Also, the owners were instructed to initiate all interactions with Dan and ignore any solicitations on his part. Given Dan’s uncontrollable penchant to challenge over delicious food treats, it was decided that he should no longer be allowed to have any food treats that he would guard from his owners.
The second important aspect of retraining a dog with dominance aggression issues is to make the dog “work for his living” by making him follow a command for every resource he needs or desires. By having the owners control his resources, Dan would learn to want to follow their directives. If they were consistent with the program he would learn that there would be negative consequences and loss of access to desired resources, if he did not acquiesce.

Follow-Up
After five days of following the dominance protocol, the owners reported improvement in Dan’s behavior, although they remarked that he seemed withdrawn and unhappy. After three and a half weeks on the dominance program, Dan finally acquiesced and accepted his “demotion.” He was no longer the king of the household—now he was the butler! The owners reported that Dan was more accepting of the new rules and they felt he was happier than when they began the program. Six months after instituting the behavior modification and management changes, the owners were so comfortable with Dan’s newfound compliance that they began to bend many of the “rules” they had established. In short order, Dan began to take advantage of their casual leadership and began to disregard their directives and occasionally growl if they persisted. The owners instantly recognized that Dan was reverting back to his old self. They reinstituted the complete program and Dan quickly responded. Over time, they were allowed to give Dan access to furniture by invitation only, but he could not behave with long lasting delicious food treats so these were eliminated from his routine.

Feline Inappropriate Elimination
Eddy, a 4-year-old, male, declawed domestic short hair

Presenting Complaint
Eddy, a 4-year-old, male, declawed domestic short hair presented to Tufts’ Behavior Clinic with inappropriate urination. Eddy’s owner was not sure when he began urinating outside of the litterbox, although she knew it became prominent during the spring. The deposits of urine looked like “coke drink spills” and were located on the walls of a screened-in porch and in the library. There were also spots on a radiator, in and around the sun porch and on the door and the wall of the mudroom. The owner reported that all of these rooms were located on the first floor of her house and had windows. The owner witnessed Eddy expel urine on one occasion and reported that his “tail quivered, like he was having a spasm.”

Treatment Rationale
Eddy’s story is a typical case of urine marking. It is common for this problem to occur in the spring when “love is in the air.” When questioned, the owner revealed that Eddy “cried, hissed and urinated” after witnessing an outside cat through a window. It is likely that Eddy became stressed by the encounter and felt the need to redefine his territory by strategically depositing “pee-mail.” In other words, Eddy was attempting to tell the outside cat that “this area is mine, so stay away.”

Treatment Recommendations
The owner was instructed to decrease Eddy’s exposure to outside cats by deterring these unwanted visitors from approaching her home. Suggestions to make the perimeter of her house aversive included using a motion-activated water spray device and leaving orange peels outside since the citrus scent is unpleasant to most cats. Also, the owner was educated about the importance of proper clean up since any untreated urine marks would serve as a trigger for Eddy to mark the spot again. The owner also opted to undergo a trial with Prozac, a mood stabilizer that decreases anxiety and therefore decreases the likelihood of an anxious response to a stressful situation.

Follow-Up
Eddy’s story ends happily as his owner reported that Eddy’s urine marking had decreased substantially.