My Pet World: Dog's barking game is getting old

Question: My dog has trained me very well. Recently, Lady began to bark at the door for no apparent reason. Each time, I get up and go to the door, thinking there's some reason for her agitation. Now, I feel like a jumping bean. I think Lady barks just to see me go to the door; it's a game. I could just ignore the barking, but what if someone really is at the door? Any advice? —B.T., Tacoma, Wash.

Answer: "I can see where this can happen; it's happened to me," says dog trainer Cheryl Smith, author of "Grab Life by the Leash: A Guide to Bringing Up and Bonding with Your Four-Legged Friend" (Wiley Publishing, New York, NY, 2008; $21.99). "Joe Cool would bark like crazy. Instead of hollering at him, I told him calmly that he didn't have to worry."

Smith continues, "It took several months, but I trained him to come to me whenever he saw someone out the window who concerned him. To get to this point, whenever he even looked at me, I'd shovel treats into his mouth. Then, I gradually moved the cookie machine farther and farther away from the window."

Smith, a trainer, understands the importance of good timing, and says to be careful not to reward your dog for barking. Also, when you offer treats during the day, feed your pet less food at night.

"There's one more idea that really will work: Ignore your dog," Smith suggests. "If you're concerned about someone really being at the door who doesn't belong, set up a motion detector at the door (available online and at some big-box stores) to alert you."

Q: We have two cats, ages 12 and 14. We put their two litter boxes in our carpeted basement. Until recently, we had no problems. A few months ago, I found a stool pile next to one box. I recalled reading that there should be one more litter box than the number of cats, so I added a box. A few weeks later, the same thing happened again. I know keeping litter boxes clean is important, and I scoop daily. What's going on? — D.S., Manash, Wis.

A: When a cat goes outside its litter box, but near the box, cat behavior consultant Pam Johnson-Bennett, of Nashville, says there is a reason. "Most likely, there's something offensive about the box itself, or maybe the litter. Often, this really does mean the box isn't clean enough."

Any time there's a change in a pet's behavior, see your veterinarian. Indeed, there are a myriad of physical explanations for your cat's actions. Of course, it would be hugely helpful to know which cat is going outside the box!

Johnson-Bennett wonders if at least one of your cats is a bit "oversized" and simply doesn't fit well in a standard litter box. A large plastic storage-type container would provide more elbow room.

The author of "Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat - Not a Sour Puss" (Penguin Publishing, New York, NY, 2011; $18), Johnson-Bennett notes that with two cats, three litter boxes is, indeed, ideal. However, aside from the number of boxes, it's all about location. If the three boxes are side-by-side-by-side in the basement, this is somewhat like having one enormous box. She suggests moving at least one box to another location.

Q: My 7-year-old Maltese recently started to sneeze and cough. She stands still in place until the cough passes. She's an indoor dog, and only goes outside through a doggy door to do her business. My husband and I have fallen on hard times and we can't afford to take MeMe to the vet. Do you know what's wrong? Could you suggest anything to give MeMe, perhaps something over the counter? — M.A.D., Cyberspace

A: It's impossible to tell for certain what's going on with MeMe. Dr. Sheldon Rubin, of Chicago, says that based on your description, the problem sounds like what veterinarians refer to as a "reverse sneeze," particularly because your dog stands still until the event passes. "It's a spasming at the rear of the throat," he explains.

The cause is often an inhalant allergy. As long as you don't overdose, you can do no harm using a children's antihistamine. Still, it's best to contact your veterinarian by phone to verify the correct dose.

If after a few days there's no improvement, you may have to do more. Rubin says there are many possible explanations for a reverse sneeze (if that is the problem), including the possibility that MeMe swallowed something that's now stuck in the back of her throat, dental disease, even nasal mites.

Veterinarians are by nature quite empathetic, and yours might be willing to view a videotape of your dog "sneezing." Watching the emailed video might help with a diagnosis. However, sometimes the only way to truly diagnose a problem is to see the dog.

Q: Our 6-year-old tabby likes licking Vaseline off my finger at night before I go to bed. I've heard that Vaseline helps cats cough up hairballs, but our cat doesn't have hairballs. Will the Vaseline hurt him? — S.C., Atlanta

A: Maybe this is why your cat doesn't have hairballs! Feline specialist Dr. Drew Weigner, of Atlanta, Ga., says, "I don't know why cats like petroleum jelly (or Vaseline), but they do. It assists kitties to pass hairballs in their stool. Still, you'd need a heck of a lot of petroleum jelly to harm your cat." Medicated Vaseline, however, is another product and could be an issue.

STEVE DALE welcomes questions/comments from readers. Send email to

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