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Canine Behavior/Submissiveness/terror


Hi! My dog is a shelter/adopted dog. He came to us with heart worms and lots of fear. He was returned to the shelter by many foster families and came to us with lots of fear from being dumped by many families.. We have had him for 4yrs and believe he's around 7-8 yrs old. He's an extremely submissive dog - not to the point where he pees when greeted tho. He's s very happy boy but so very frightened by big loud people, any quick movements, noises especially thunder.. If things are quiet and it's just my husband and I he does just fine - great dog!  
Here's the problem: our son joined the Marines and we took in his two cats! They had visited before and all got along just fine. The longer the cats are here the more terrified our dog gets..he's ok when they're sleeping but in the evening when the cats are most active - the dog paces and paces and begs to go outside..well I happen to know he's not fond of being outside. I'm with him 24/7 I'm a stay at home mom-I see things, but this time I have no answers.. Can you help me help him? The cats don't pay any attention to him there's no interaction except an occasional sniff at the nose..why is he freaking out? Why is it getting worse instead of better? HELP PLEASE!!!

Why is it getting "worse" has many answers all of which require YOU to answer MY questions.  But here are a few educated guesses: the cats are not truly ignoring the dog but have demonstrated defense aggression you have not seen (totally possible); he is being "flooded" (overwhelmed by the presence) by something he has no experience with OR has had experience in the past in one of his multiple homes that was quite unpleasant and punishing; your reaction to his obvious fear and discomfort is actually (inadvertently) rewarding the dog.

I'd like you to try this for the next WEEK or TWO and then, using FOLLOWUP FEATURE (if you save the link to my answer in your email account you can then return to the answer, scroll to the bottom, and choose FOLLOWUP to ask another question) report back:

Keep a bottle of water in a plant sprayer with you while the cats are roaming.  Be sure the bottle has never been used for anything else.  This is your negative reinforcer to the CATS should either one approach your dog for any reason: within a couple of feet, point and spray the cat whenever it approaches your dog.  You will have control of your dog because you will:

Put him on house tab (lightweight leash) the moment he begins to pace.  Do not let him out (since he is not happy being alone outside what this is doing is reinforcing his fear of the cats by isolating him immediately after the stimulus becomes too great for him to bear).  When he begins to pace, pick up the house tab, pick up the sprayer and keep the dog near you.  If he becomes more agitated (that would be odd since leash restraint is often very calming to a stressed dog), circle him (walk in a hoola hoop circle, left, right, left, ask for "sit", praise and food reward a tiny high value treat).  Just hang out in your home as usual with the dog on leash with you (let's make this leash about ten feet long if we can).  WHENEVER a cat approaches your dog, point the sprayer in the cat's direction and spray.  Say nothing and do nothing else.  Counter conditioning the cats to stay at a certain distance from the dog is a good thing for all; the dog will also become aware that "something totally different" is happening and should begin to demonstrate SOME sign that his stress levels are reducing after two weeks of this effort.

Don't forget to report back.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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