DEAR DR. FOX: I have a 6-year-old male miniature poodle. He has being with us since he was 9 weeks old. He is seldom alone, since both my husband and I are always at home. Our biggest problem is that when he wakes up, he scratches our bedroom door to get in, or begs for us to go to his room and get in bed with him (he sleeps in a regular queen bed). It happens around 1 or 2 a.m.
What can be done to discourage this behavior? He was neutered when he was 6 months old. Thanks. -- Y.R., Springfield, Virginia
DEAR Y.R.: The simple answer is to keep your bedroom door open so he can come from his room to sleep with you, which he will probably do very quietly, not having to scratch on your bedroom door to open it.
It never ceases to amaze me how complex patterns of behavior can evolve between people and their animal companions where boundaries and consistency are lacking. Your little dog might be most content with his own little bed at the foot of yours and appreciate an open-door policy in your home!
DEAR DR. FOX: My wife and I have a 5-year-old, 12-pound silky terrier, Stewie. We got him as a rescue when he was 1. There's a consistent problem, however, when it comes time to feed him. He'll scratch his bowl to let us know he's hungry; we prepare his favorite food -- a mix of wet and dry -- and warm it in the microwave (yes, he's spoiled). Then he refuses to eat unless several things happen beforehand:
First, he won't eat unless I'm standing over him and his bowl. If I'm in another room of the house, he'll leave his food and seek me out, sitting against my feet. I then have to accompany him to his food, where he'll stand over it, as if guarding it, growling and baring his teeth.
Second, I have to pet him and scratch him vigorously (while he's growling, though he never bites) several times before he lets out a snort and then gobbles his food, followed by a large belch. He then becomes passive once again.
If I'm off on a several-day business trip, my wife tells me he seems to settle in and eat without a problem. But when I return, so does his ritual. For shorter periods of my absence, say when he's fed just before I leave the house for some errand, my wife tells me he sits on the couch looking out the window, waiting for me to return before he'll touch his food.
One partial solution I've found is, when he's standing over his food growling, I simply take it away and set it on a counter, out of his reach. He looks forlorn; I give it back to him after a while, and most times he'll eat. Again, I know he's hungry, but we seem to have to go through this ritual each time.
Is there anything you could suggest to break him of this habit? -- D.K., Springfield, Virginia
DEAR D.K.: It is amazing what complex rituals can evolve in our caring relationships with animals, and sometimes with each other, when we become conditioned to certain reactions and expectations. This could become a problem for your dog if you have to have a dogsitter come and care for him when you and your wife are away from home. Or maybe not, since it seems to have evolved just between you and your dog.
His behavior will change when yours changes. His food-soliciting expectation and subsequent guarding behavior is a cycle you can break, as you have discovered by putting the food back up on the counter for a while. This should cease the chain of behaviors where he will not eat until you have petted him and ruffled his fur.
So put the food down and walk away. Go back after a minute and put the food on the countertop for a minute, then put the food back down for him in a different place from the usual. Leave him alone until he is finished, then call him and groom him -- a reward for eating by himself.
REGULAR WELLNESS EXAMS MUST INCLUDE DENTAL CHECKUP
Dogs and cats should be examined by a veterinarian regularly for dental problems that can cause pain, injury and systemic disease, particularly affecting the kidneys. Signs of trouble aren't usually apparent to owners. Serious periodontal disease affects about 85 percent of dogs, while an estimated 72 percent of cats suffer from tooth resorption, a type of decay, possibly an autoimmune disease that often isn't discovered until teeth become loose and extraction is the only available treatment.
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox's website at DrFoxVet.com.)