My Pet World: Dog needs distraction from owner's piano playing

WARWICK, R.I. — Experts from the International Assn. of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) 2011 Conference from April 1 to 3 answered these reader questions:

Question: My 7-year-old dachshund/cocker spaniel mix howls when I play the piano. He doesn't howl at other noises. Is he in pain? I have to ban him to the yard when I play. Any advice? — J.S., Richmond, Va.

Answer: I doubt your dog is in pain. However, it may be he's a music critic. Barbara Handelman, of Norwich, Vt., a dog behavior consultant and author of "Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook," agrees.

"Since your dog isn't howling at fire engines or singing to car alarms, for some reason it's unique to your piano playing," she says.

"Try rewarding your dog for an incompatible behavior by offering him a Kong toy stuffed with (low-fat) peanut butter," Handelman suggests. "Dogs can't chew and howl at the same time. Only offer the treat inside a toy as practice is about to start, and remove the chew toy when you end your piano practice."

Q: Our 13-year-old indoor/outdoor cat is very affectionate, yet for seemingly no reason, sometimes circles our feet and legs, sounds aggressive, then bites us savagely. How do we address this? — R.T., Toccoa, Ga.

A: "Notice your cat's body language, and simply find a way to separate yourself from the cat before the attack," says cat behavior consultant Pam Johnson-Bennett, author of "Starting from Scratch: How to Correct Behavior Problems in Your Adult Cat."

"And don't run away; that will only cause your cat to chase, maybe thinking it's a game. It's important to play (with your cat) daily using an interactive toy, teaching him to chase and pounce on it — and not you," she says.

Another idea is to carry little mouse toys or plastic balls in your pocket. If your cat gets ready to attack, toss the toys in the opposite direction.

Johnson-Bennett, who lives near Nashville, also advises lots of enrichment indoors — rotating toys, and feeding your cat from various puzzle feeders (if you're feeding dry food), such as the Eggsercizer or Play 'N Treat Ball (place kibble inside, and teach your cat to roll the toy around so food tumbles out). Leave several of these feeders around the house for your cat to "hunt" down. If you feed moist food, place some moist cat food in plastic dishes in two or three locations, so the cat has to search for them.

Q: One or both of our male dogs is lifting his leg on two different sofas and a chair. We adopted our two male cockapoos to keep our slightly older female cockapoo company. Could this be two jealous boys both wanting the female? — J. P., Jenks, Okla.

A: Victoria Stilwell, of Animal Planet's "It's Me or the Dog," says there are two immediate considerations. If the onset of this behavior is sudden, particularly if only one dog is the culprit, see your vet to rule out a medical issue. Secondly, if the boys aren't neutered, "consider snipping." If the female is not spayed, either, all three dogs need "fixing."

"I wouldn't be surprised if one dog is copying the others and you have a pissing contest going on," says Stilwell, based in Atlanta.

"Keep the dogs supervised at all times, as if they were puppies," she says. "So, if they're crate trained, keep them in (separate) crates. Or keep them in a kitchen behind a gate. Or tether the dogs to you. The goal is eliminate the possibility of either dog running off into corner and lifting a leg. Also, it's important to remove the odor with an efficient odor neutralizer."

Stilwell adds, "Go for lots of on-leash walks, having them mark on their walks rather than inside your house."

Q: My 5-year-old cat loves to sleep next to me, and I love it, too. Several times a week, I stay at my boyfriend's. There, my cat gets up several times overnight, scratches at the bedding and continues until my boyfriend wakes up. Finally, I have to take her out of the bedroom and shut the door. I feel like she just wants attention. But she only does this when all three of us are in bed. If she stays with my boyfriend without me (which is common), or stays with just me, she doesn't do this. Why? — M.W., Charlottesville, Va.

A: When you and your boyfriend are together, your cat probably doesn't receive as much attention. Redwood City, Calif.-based Cat behavior consultant Marilyn Krieger, author of "Cat Fancy Naughty No More: Change Unwanted Behaviors Through Positive Reinforcement," says to ignore the behavior.

"Yelling at the cat, and even removing her from the room — though I understand why you do — is reinforcing (the bad behavior because you're giving the cat attention). Meanwhile, offer playtime (with an interactive toy) before you go to bed, and follow that up with some treats."

Your cat will enjoy the attention, and hopefully the exercise will help her sleep through the night.

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