Animal Behavior & Training

Case Studies

It is a popular myth that animal behaviorists have the most badly behaved pets of all! But whether that really is just a myth or whether we just tend to take on the truly difficult ones and persist with them long after everyone else has given up... well, that is still very much open for debate!

Here are two of my very own:


Sex: Male (neutered)
Age: 3 years
Problem: Guarding doorways

Background: Louis is an all round nervous dog. Picked up off the streets when he was about a year old, he then spent two years in a shelter. There is no way of knowing more about his background.

From this picture it is obvious that Louis is not terribly relaxed. His ears are back (an almost permanent state of affairs) and whites of his eyes are visible, a sign of arousal. His stance is rigid and he is unfocused, far too worried about what is going on behind him to concentrate on what is going on in front of him.

Problem: Whether it was out of general anxiety or simply a pre-programmed genetic behavior, Louis would guard the kitchen door and not allow the two other dogs to come inside from the garden. If they tried he would growl menacingly and bare his teeth, causing them to back off, preferring to stay out in the heat to confronting him.

Resource guarding is common in dogs, and prized resources can include food, beds, owners, toys and spaces (e.g. area around the food bowl or the dog's 'kennel'). If the dog spends a lot of its time in the kitchen and it eats and sleeps there, that makes it a very prized resource worthy of defending.

Strategy: The key with Louis was to build up his confidence. We had to teach him that he didn't need to guard his kennel, because he would always have access to it and so there was no need to fight for it. We also had to make him more relaxed generally, as well as specifically in the kitchen doorway so he had a safe, alternative behaviour to resort to whenever he felt threatened into defending his space.

This is where clicker training worked its magic! We did general clicker training with Louis simply to boost his confidence. More specifically we did some training in the doorway so that he could learn to be more relaxed there. We also trained all three dogs there so he could get used to them being in 'his space'. Finally, whenever a situation arose where he looked nervous (i.e. when the other two dogs were trying to come inside) and/or started to growl, we would interrupt and get him to sit and make eye contact with us instead. This way, he had a reliable alternative or a 'safety cue' - whenever he felt threatened he could do this and he would immediately feel safe and calm. At first we rewarded him for doing this. Soon there was no need, he did it automatically.

Outcome: Louis no longer guards the kitchen door, much to the relief of the other dogs, and he loves his clicker training. Also, whenever he starts to feel nervous or unsure of something, he just sits down and waits. In so doing, he has applied this 'safe' behavior to other situations and scenarios, and uses it as a coping strategy whenever he feels under threat. What a clever boy!

Pictures show a nervous and scared Louis (left) and a relaxed, happy and confident Louis (right).



Sex: Female (speyed)                    
Age: 9 years
Problem: Urinating around the house

Problem: When Loulou started urinating around the house, a medical check up confirmed that she had developed oxalate crystals in her bladder. These had caused urination to be painful, a pain that Loulou started to associate with using the litter tray. So, she started eliminating elsewhere - against the curtains, sofa, wooden furniture and carpets - to try to avoid this painful experience. She was immediately put on on a special diet to dissolve the crystals, and she started to get better. The pain gradually went away, but her urination habits did not change. It is probable that here, Loulou had 'learnt' that using the litter tray was a painful experience to be avoided at all costs, whereas urinating elsewhere did not have the same unpleasant association (i.e. once the diet kicked in and the pain started to dissipate).

Just to complicate matters, the relationship between the two male cats in the house deteriorated rapidly around this time. This lead to very aggressive behavior and lots of fighting. Loulou was very anxious about this situation as, if the young male could not find the older male to terrorise, he would pick on her instead. So, she resorted to a behavior that had brought her relief in the past - urinating around the house. Whoever said that behavior problems were straightforward?!

Strategy: The treatment plan involved separating the warring felines at all times they could be unsupervised, ensuring that they were all able to relax without fear of being attacked. When they were allowed access to each other, it was always focused on positive events, such as feeding or attention from the owners. Calm behavior was rewarded, aggressive behavior interrupted before it could make any real progress. In addition, curtains were tied up off the floor, sofa corners were covered in see-through plastic, rugs removed etc. Litter trays were placed in popular elimination areas (unpleasant but necessary, and only temporary). Dishes of dry food were also placed in areas where a litter tray was not practical. The aim was to restrict access to soft furnishings while providing Loulou with an acceptable alternative in the litter trays, as well as anticipating that she would steer clear of urinating in areas where she was likely to eat (both cats and dogs are usually reluctant to soil the area where their food is). Thorough cleaning of all soiled areas was essential (biological detergent needed in order to break down the fatty proteins in the urine that a cat would otherwise still be able to smell) and the wooden furniture had to be thrown out.

Outcome: The frequency of the inappropriate urination gradually started to decrease until it became once every now and again, instead of a three-four times a day. However, even now, four years later, in times of extreme anxiety, Loulou will still occasionally urinate against the curtains, resorting to the behavior she once learnt would bring her relief. The fact that the feeling of relief is chemically addictive (think of the relief you feel after surviving a bungee jump!) should never be under-estimated, and can be a contributing factor in many a behavior problem.

Create a Free Website