My Pet World: Conditioning can ease a dog's fears over noise

Question: Sophie, our Brittany, is afraid of the toaster. She'll try to climb into my husband's lap trembling, or she'll run away, ducking as if someone is shooting in her direction whenever the toasts pops. Can we resolve this problem, or should we just stop eating toast? — D.M., Stafford, Texas

Answer: Dogs can develop all sorts of inappropriate fears. It might be that early on, someone tried to train Sophie as a gun dog, and using force made matters worse. Now, Sophie generalizes about all sorts of sounds. However, if her fear is centered on the toaster alone, my guess is that the sounds it makes once startled your pup. Then, you may have paid attention to Sophie, unintentionally reinforcing the fear when you only meant to comfort her.

In any case, the fix (if the sound of the toaster is Sophie's sole fear) is desensitization and counter-conditioning. Begin by placing Sophie's food bowl in a room far away from the toaster. As Sophie eats, pop the toaster. If she responds with even the slightest hint of fear, she's too close. Once Sophie is chowing down without a care in the world, gradually move her dish closer and closer to the toaster. Take your time. This conditioning program could take several weeks, but eventually, this problem should be "toast."

If Sophie fears other loud noises, like the dishwasher, thunderstorms, cars backfiring, etc., contact a veterinary behaviorist or a certified dog behavior consultant.

Q: My newly-adopted dog is beginning to understand house training. Now, how do I get him to signal me with "woof" when he's gotta go? — K.L., Indianapolis

A: Dog trainer Krista Cantrell, author of "Housetrain Your Dog Now" (Plume Books, New York, NY; 2000; $12.95), says that when your dog barks, say "good" and let him out. At first, choose a time when you know he's likely to do his business.

Cantrell is partial to draping jingle bells over the doorknob year round so she can tell when her dog need to go out. Teach your pup to ring the bells by smearing peanut butter on them; when he takes a lick, the bells ring. Then you open the door.

However, many dogs are pretty smart and learn to jingle those bells just to get out to play! One reader wrote about her fun-loving Labrador jingling bells in the middle of the night.

A better solution might be to encourage your dog to bark when you think he might have to do his business. Then put on the leash and take him out. Limit these outings to business only, with no time for play.

Q: Our cat is herding our border collie. We've had border collies for years, and Geneva is particularly calm. Morgan, our cat, adopted us. One day, Morgan just showed up. He's maybe 7 months old. Geneva is very patient with Morgan, and actually allows the cat to move him around the house. I'm worried that this isn't normal. Any thoughts? — A.N.N., St. Paul, Minn.

A: Normal, well, no. However, I don't believe you have cause to worry unless Geneva has suggested with growling, or in some other way, that he's becoming increasingly impatient with Morgan. First, find a place where Geneva can find refuge from your pushy kitty, perhaps a crate.

Be sure you offer Morgan lots of opportunities to chase toys rather than your dog. At least once daily, use an interactive cat toy (fishing pole-type toy with feathers or fabric) for play. I also suggest a laser light. Periodically, drop a treat or piece of kibble on the little red "bug" so Morgan really has a chance to catch something (otherwise laser light may be frustrating). Adult supervision is important if a child is using the light, since he/she may shine it in the cat's eyes, or in the eyes of another child.

Also, feed Morgan at least some of his food in random places around the house (beyond the reach of your dog) so he has to "hunt" to find it. If he's searching for his next meal, he won't be focused on Geneva. And we know that after a good meal, cats (and many people) usually enjoy a good nap.


American Humane Assn. ambassador

I'm proud to announce that the American Humane Assn. has named me a National Ambassador. I've been honored with many awards in my career but this could top them all.

I have served on the board of directors of the American Humane Assn. since 2007. Since 1877, the association has been a mainstream voice for the protection of children and animals, including farm animals and animals used in movies (the tag "No Animals Were Harmed" is from the American Humane Assn. film unit). I will be proud to continue representing the AHA whenever and wherever I can.

Its mission dovetails with mine — very simply to create more humane and compassionate communities. I believe if we treat animals with respect and dignity, we not only benefit from their presence, but we benefit from that lesson learned — and may then treat one another with more respect and dignity. To learn more, check out

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