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Q: My 3-year-old Maltese is generally well-behaved, but we have a couple of trouble spots.
1. The biggest problem: If he gets hold of a piece of paper that has dropped on the floor, he shreds it into hundreds of pieces. He gets possessive -- if you approach him, he growls and bares his teeth. We’ve learned how to handle it, but we are thinking of starting a family and want him to stop altogether.
2. He constantly barks at animals on TV. We’ve been told to use a spray bottle but don't want to have to carry one around for eternity.
A: While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to behavior issues, the first line of business is to find the root of the problem, which depends a lot on your unique furball. His paper-shredding habit could be a way of asserting dominance, while the communication with his TV friends could be the result of any number of causes (see our article on barking for more details). For either issue, a few “fireside chats” on Obedience should help. By creating a new groundwork of “I say. You do” with all of your dog’s habits, you’ll be better able to keep naughty behaviors under wraps.
Start by teaching the basics: Sit. Stay. Off. Come. Lie down. Say a command, and use positive reinforcement (a dog cookie or a pat works great) to reward him each time he plays along. Eventually, he’ll connect the reward to his good behavior and repeat it when asked.
Once he’s mastered the basics, you can work on correcting his more challenging problem behaviors. Use the same command and reward technique by telling him to “calm/quiet/settle” when he loses his cool to critters on TV. Tell him to “drop it” when he sinks his teeth into a slip of paper. Reward him immediately with a treat when he complies. Once he realizes that he’ll get more out of good behavior than bad, he will hopefully stop engaging in the bad behaviors altogether.
Be aware that the problems you described -- especially possessiveness -- never respond to a quick fix. Resolution will require patience and dedication from the whole clan. Consider hiring a professional who specializes in behavioral problems, especially if you’re concerned about future dog-baby relations. A home visit and an interview with your family will help a specialist determine how and why these problems developed, then custom-tailor the perfect solution. One-on-one dog lessons usually cost about $100 per hour; a series of group training sessions, about $110. Find a veterinary behaviorist in your area at www.dacvb.org.
Catherine Peace, DVM, is a registered veterinarian finishing a small animal internal medicine residency at BluePearl Veterinary Partners emergency pet clinic in Kansas City. Dr. Peace received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from Kansas State University in 2006 and joined BluePearl in 2007. She currently lives in Lawrence, KA, with her husband, son, Labrador retriever, and three cats.
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