Animal behaviour deciphered

Dr. Karen Machin has studied stress and behaviour in wildlife for many years, but in her spare time, the veterinarian and researcher enjoys training and competing with her dog.

By WCVM Today

Photo: Christina Weese.

She’s also the co-founder of New Hope Dog Rescue, a Saskatoon-based organization that fosters and finds good homes for neglected and unwanted dogs.  

Now Machin is expanding her expertise to become one of only a handful of board-certified animal behaviour specialists in Canada.

Machin, an associate professor in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) Department of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences, is completing a residency in animal behaviour with Dr. Sagi Denenberg, a board-certified behaviour specialist in Thornhill, Ont. Machin also provides animal behavioural services at the WCVM’s Veterinary Medical Centre (VMC).

Machin is a veterinarian who also holds a PhD degree in anesthesia and analgesia and completed a previous residency in avian, exotic and wildlife medicine. She brings years of experience to her new specialty as she explores animal learning, body language and how to provide appropriate training through positive reinforcement.

Machin has answered a few animal behaviour questions from the WCVM’s social media followers (questions and answers have been edited for length). Machin will also be answering more pet owners' questions during two virtual WCVM PetED Talks that take place virtually on April 12 and May 17. Click here for more details. 

Q. Why do animals attack their owners?

  • They’re not feeling well. Seventy per cent of my cases have a pain component. If you’re trying to pick them up and they’re in pain, they may bite because it hurts.
  • Over 40 per cent of dogs that are hit by their owners will turn on their owners, so that’s a possibility.
  • Underlying emotional problems. Anxiety, fear and frustration are all emotions that can cause animals to bite. If they’re put into a situation where they are really fearful, then as far as they’re concerned, they are protecting themselves.

If this is truly an issue, then the owner needs to seek help. I don’t know what the statistics are in Canada, but behaviour is a bigger killer of animals than infectious disease, because we vaccinate them and we protect them (for the latter). The biggest cause of mortality for dogs around the one-year age is aggression toward other people or toward other dogs. Faced with that aggression, many owners may see no other choice other than to have their dog humanely euthanized.

Q. How can we train dogs to stop barking at the window using positive reinforcement?

The first thing we have to realize is that we kept dogs in our human communities for thousands of years because they bark and warn us of potential danger. To an extent, you’re working against their biology.

There are a number of different ways to accomplish it. The first one would be to draw the curtains or put up a frosted film on the windows so they can see less of what’s going on outside. That’s avoidance.

With positive reinforcement, you train your dog to do something different. If your dog is moving toward the window, don’t let it continue. Call your dog over and give a reward. Slowly over time, you increase the amount of time that your dog needs to wait before getting the treat.

I have clients with anxious dogs — always scanning around, always worried about what might happen. That’s anxiety, and it can drive that behaviour. These dogs feel that that they’re always in danger. An anxious dog is a dog that’s pessimistic.

If the dog is looking out the window and barking all the time, then it may have a problem that’s deeper. The beginning stage is to give your dog an alternative and compatible behaviour but avoidance is part of that. If you can stop the exposure, it makes it easier to work with your dog.

Q. How do you handle dog reactivity when in the car? Our dog barks at trucks going by or other dogs and people while we’re driving.

To start with, I’d try putting your dog in a crate while travelling. For some dogs, you can use an infant sunshade to reduce the amount they see. Then it’s also about interrupting the behaviour very early with positive reinforcement, which can be difficult if you’re driving (if you have a companion who can help, that will work as well). Before the dog barks or looks like they’re going to bark, tell the dog to look at you and then give a reward.

If this dog really struggles with travelling, you can also medicate your dog so it can handle travelling better. There are short- and long-term medications depending on the length of the trip. Some dogs really struggle with it, and it can be an indication of other underlying behavioural problems.

Most veterinarians should be able to prescribe an appropriate medication for travel.

Q. How do I get my 7.5-month-old puppy to quit eating cloth? She has tons of toys, play time, training and is otherwise healthy.

Supervision, supervision, supervision. If you can’t supervise, train your puppy to wear a muzzle so she can’t pick up cloth. Consuming cloth can be life threatening, so first and foremost is safety. If she eats it, swallows it and can’t throw it back up, it has the potential to cause a blockage.

If she looks like she’s going for a piece of cloth, then call her away and give her a reward. Use positive reinforcement for not doing it, and if you can’t supervise, put a muzzle on her or put her in a location where she has no access. It’s also about puppy-proofing the area as much as possible so she can’t get to those items as much.

She’s still a puppy, but the other thing to consider is that some dogs will consume non-food items because they’re in pain. It can also be a sign of other illness.

Visit this link to learn more about the VMC’s clinical behaviour service or to book an appointment.

In recognition of National Dog Bite Prevention Week (April 10-16, 2022), Dr. Karen Machin will give a WCVM PetED Talk called “Dog bite prevention strategies” at 7 p.m. CST, Tuesday, April 12 (through Zoom). Click here to register for this free seminar or for “Socializing your new puppy,” another WCVM PetED Talk that will take place at 7 p.m. CST, Tuesday, May 17.