Canine Behavior/Odd Dogs
I have two dogs that are odd. One is a small white 3/4 shih-tzu 1/4 Bichon Frise we strongly suspect came from a puppy mill considering what health problems he came with and the other a white terri-poo, Both are neutered males and have been together since they were puppies.
Henry, the shih-tzu, we're not sure if he's dumb or lazy. It took him almost a year to figure out how to go up and down stairs and three to figure out he can jump on the bed. His learned tricks are pretty much sit and come and it took a while to teach those. This little dog would often come in with a yellow head from where the other dog peed on him. We first thought Sam (the terri-poo) was purposefully peeing on him but after watching, we discovered little Henry would go over to where Sammy was peeing and STAND IN THE STREAM time and time again. He's got the best temperament of any dog I have ever met (he licked the vet when we came to pick him up after the neutering) so I'm not worried about him doing something dangerous. My question is, are all shih-tzus like this or is my dog special?
My other question is about my other dog, Sam. My mom and I have noticed odd behavior from him since around the beginning of the month. We would let the dogs outside and when it was time to come in, my mom would open the door and he would just sit at the bottom and not budge until my mom went outside and called him from the porch; he would just sit and whine. I just went to let him and he just sat in the top left corner of the yard (our porch stairs face the bottom left corner of the yard) an whined. I called him over and over and he just sat there (he normally bolts inside and runs up the stairs). I thought he was stuck and had to go out in my pjs and grab him by the collar to get him to move. Even then he would only go a couple steps in front of me with his tail firmly tucked between his legs, he wouldn't go up the stairs until I had my foot on the step. We get inside and he heads to the stairs to go up them to see my mom like he usually does but stopped when he realized I wasn't following (I was grabbing my drink I had left on the counter to go get his fuzzy butt) and came back down and waited for me. Again he wouldn't go too far in front of me and his tail didn't leave it's spot between his legs until we were at the top of the stairs and he was off to sit with my mom on her bed. I walked in to talk to her about his odd actions and he left his spot to press himself as close to me as he could get and wouldn't budge even after I stopped petting him (he normally goes and does something else when I stop petting him or he whines until I pet him again and he doesn't sit right up against me if mom's home). When I left my mom's room to go back to my own, he looked like he was going to follow me and whine to get on my bed but stayed with my mom when she called him. What could cause Sam to act like that? It was so different from his usual behavior!
Thank you for your questions.
Re: Henry, without observing him, I can't tell you if he's "special" or not. Some dogs take a little longer to figure out how to learn. Some dogs are nervous of stairs or jumping onto furniture and so it takes time to build that confidence. My little terrier mix took a few months longer than I expected to figure out he could jump on the couch, but being only about 7 lbs at the time, it probably seemed like leaping a tall building in a single bound to him. With encouragement and praise every time he made an effort - and helping him when he felt unsure, he got the hang of it and now jumps up like a pro. It may be that Henry just needed a little more encouragement. It doesn't mean he's unintelligent. It may mean he's a bit environmentally sensitive and so needs a little extra time to take in his surroundings, or a few minutes to "greet" new objects or obstacles before he feels comfortable tackling them.
As for the other dog, it sounds like something has spooked him. Did you turn on the heater near the start of the month? That can often frighten dogs when it hasn't been on for months, and then suddenly the heater is cycling on and off. Often the first couple weeks includes the smell of burning dust because it hasn't been on since the previous winter and so the smell along with the noise can be disturbing to dogs.
His tail tucked firmly between his legs is his way of telling you as clearly as he can that he's SCARED. I can only base my response on the words that you used in your letter. You said that you had to go outside and "grab him by the collar to get him to move." My concern here is that you were frustrated with him and grabbed and yanked/pulled on him to get him to go toward the house, which likely added to his fear in that moment. I would encourage you instead, to coax him back to the house. Go out and reassure him. Offer him a super tasty tid-bit, maybe a bite of cheese or hot dog and lure him back inside if you have to. Once inside, play his favorite game with him for a few minutes to distract him away from his fear. He can't be frightened and having fun at the same time, so if you can help him have fun, he'll forget (at least for that moment) that he's scared.
If you can relate his fear to something in the house such as the cycling of the heater, then have treats handy. Whenever the heater kicks in (for the next couple weeks), toss him a treat as soon as he notices/reacts to the heater "monster". This way the heater cycling on/off will predict good things and instead of fearing it, he'll come to like it. If you don't want, or can't have treats at the ready all the time for this, then have his favorite toy ready and when the heater cycles on (or whatever it is that's triggering his fear), stop what you're doing and play with him for a couple minutes. This way that scary thing comes to predict play time with his people.
My dogs often will wait for me or come back down if I've sent them up to bed but didn't immediately follow. If they have to come back down for me, they will do what your dog did. They'll wait at the bottom of the stairs to see if I'm coming, then halfway up the stairs, they'll turn and check to make sure I'm still there. They'll wait at the top of the stairs and check again to be sure I'm still following when they get to my bedroom door. This is because dogs are social creatures and want to be with us. If your dog was scared when he came in, it's not at all surprising that he was hesitant to go on his own and was waiting for the security of having you near by. That he was pressing himself into you suggests he was looking for reassurance and comfort from you.
If he normally seeks that from your mom, but was this time choosing you instead of her, you might want to check in with your mother to see if she's ill or stressed or depressed. If she's not her "normal" self, this could be adding to the dog's sense of stress/distrust in the house right now. Our dogs reflect our emotional state and so if the dog's behavior is suddenly changed and you can't lay it on something in the environment, then you need to assess the current emotional lives of those the dog lives with and address any issues there.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist