Four mistakes that lead to animal-control problems

July 30, 2011

Paul Miller, executive director of the Humane Society of Washington County, and his wife, Pat Miller, a certified professional dog trainer and owner of Peacable Paws, offered the following tips for preventing animal-control issues:

The mistake: Offering wildlife a buffet in the form of unsecured garbage cans, cat food left outside or pet doors into your house.

The result: Raccoons, skunks, coyotes and other wild animals will make themselves at home.

"I can't tell you, in my career, how many times I've gotten a call about a raccoon or a skunk in the kitchen," Paul Miller said. 'What's it doing in the kitchen?' 'Well we've got this little cat door, doggy door ...'"

The solution: Use garbage cans with tight lids, take cat food in at night and remove pet doors or lock them at night.

The mistake: Punishing an escape-artist pet when it returns.

The result: The dog or cat associates returning home with punishment and stays away longer.

The solution: Instead of punishing the dog or cat, focus on preventing the escapes. Do your children forget to close a gate? Install a spring so it will close automatically. Does the dog leave the yard when let out unsupervised? Make sure someone always goes outside with it. Prevent "door darting" by setting up baby gates around the door or train your dog to obey the cue "wait," Pat Miller suggested.


The mistake: Failure to socialize a dog as a puppy.

The result: "You'll see this in bites a lot of times," Paul Miller said. "People will have a dog, and it's at home, it's a great pet, been home for two years, and then summer comes and we want to go to a picnic in the park or somewhere."

A dog that never has been off its own property is likely to be overwhelmed, he said. "All of a sudden, you've got strangers, you've got noise, you've got all this stuff going on, and some dogs just slam on the breaks and go, no, no-no-no, NO!"

The solution: Expose your dog to a variety of people, places and situations when it is between 3 and 14 weeks old, making sure the puppy has good experiences, Pat Miller said.

"Once that period has passed, you can no longer socialize," she said. "You can do behavior modification and try to repair some of the damage, but ... if your dog is not well-socialized, don't think you're going to be able to dump him into the car and take him to the picnic."

The mistake: Exposing a dog to multiple stressful stimuli at once.

The result: The "bite threshold" is reached.

For example, Paul Miller said, a dog owner might know that a dog doesn't like loud noises, beards or children running around. Individually, these situations make the dog upset and nervous, but don't cause it to bite, so the owner might take the dog to a family reunion.

"Kids are running around screaming," he said. "Uncle Joe comes over to pet him. He's got a beard. Thunderstorm comes up. So you stack those things on top of each other — I bet Uncle Joe gets bit."

The solution: Be on the lookout for mounting stressors and get the dog away from them.

"Many dog owners could be better at recognizing when a dog is showing the more subtle signs of stress and helping him out there," Pat Miller said.

For example, if you're introducing a dog to a child and instead of wagging and licking, the dog looks in the other direction, that is a low-level stress signal, she said.

"It's never a good idea to force your dog into a situation when he's saying, 'No, I'd rather not,'" she said.

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