Q: A few days ago I got a dog from a couple who got divorced. The dog is 5 years old. When I leave the house he scratches at the door. What can I do to stop him? I just got new doors 3 weeks ago and I don't want them ruined. Also, I have 2 cats. When the cats come over for attention, the dog pushes his way so the cats can't get near me.
A: First of all, thanks for having such a good heart and possibly saving this dog from relinquishment to a shelter. Shelters do the best they can, but there are more homeless animals than there are homes, and a middle-aged dog doesn't have the best odds of adoption.
Now let's save your doors and enable your cats to get some love!
Your dog could be scratching at the door for a couple of reasons. The easiest fix comes if he learned, in his former home, that scratching at the door got him something he wanted. Can you ask his people if he ever scratched their doors and, if so, how they responded? For example, if when he scratched the door they sometimes came back in — even if it was just to yell at him — then their attention rewarded his door-scratching.
If that's the case, and if there's no anxiety involved, the behavior will go away if you prevent it and/or ignore it. You can prevent it by setting up a barrier between your dog and the door. Or you can ignore it (while not letting your doors get ruined!) if you use a sheet of plexiglass to cover the area of the door that he can reach. If you don't want to bother with the hassle (and drilling holes) of using plexiglass there is also a product called Door Shields designed specifically to prevent dogs and cats from scratching up doors. You can visit the Door Shield site to see the product by clicking here.
Whether you use a barrier or just protect the door, you can also help your dog change his behavior by providing him with a different, more enticing activity to perform after you leave. Even taking a meal's worth of dry food and scattering it on the floor for him to "forage" may keep him busy for long enough that by the time he's done finding all the food, he's distracted from his usual behavior pattern.
Another possibility is to give him a safe chew or a food-dispensing toy to keep him busy when you leave. And it never hurts to give a dog a good bout of morning exercise — if you're lucky, that alone might just make him too sleepy to bother with the door.
On the other hand, if your dog has genuine separation anxiety that's manifested as scratching at the door, you'll have to do a bit more work. Separation anxiety does often show up along with a change in household or a change in routine, and your dog has just experienced both. For more about separation anxiety click here.
Also read Patricia McConnell's excellent little pamphlet, "I'll Be Home Soon!," available at www.dogwise.com. If you think your dog does have separation anxiety, it's best to see a veterinarian for appropriate medication, and simultaneously a trainer who specializes in behavior modification and can help you develop a plan to alleviate the problem. Mild separation anxiety does sometimes resolve pretty easily, and the combination of meds with behavior modification is really the way to go.
Last but not least, your kitties! If your dog already knows how to sit-stay or down-stay, give this cue when he approaches while you pet your cats. Reward him for holding position — use attention and patting as well as food for this, since it's attention he's seeking. If he shoves the cats out of the way, get up and walk away from him — when he pushes away the cats, he loses the opportunity to get your attention and affection, but when he hangs out quietly along with the cats and doesn't bother them, he gets attention, affection, and treats.
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