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Ask the Expert: Tips for Pets with Special Behavioral Needs

Marissa Martino

by Mary Janak, volunteer writer

Patience and time are the “secrets” to helping dogs and cats learn new behaviors. Just like people, they have individual personalities, and need to feel safe to realize their potential.

“Some dogs are very happy-go-lucky and resilient emotionally, while other dogs have to learn to manage their anxiety, fear or aggression, or learn new social behaviors like how to walk on a leash,” says Marissa Martino, DFL’s behavior manager.

Dogs and cats that want to remove themselves from a specific trigger—an object, a person or a situation that causes them stress—will withdraw downward, tuck in their backs and tails, and display one or more of seven coping behaviors out of context—licking lips, yawning, stretching, scratching, shaking off, sneezing and sniffing.

“It’s very important to see animals’ behavior in context,” says Marissa. “For instance, a dog licking its lips and sniffing at a piece of steak means something very different than when a dog walks into a veterinarian’s waiting room. Then, licking and sniffing are yellow flags that the dog is getting stressed.”

Anxiety occurs a lot, Marissa says. “Some animals feeling generalized anxiety can tip over into aggression, while others won’t. It depends on the pet’s resilience.”

Overstimulation is also common. High-arousal dogs bark, lunge at things or mouth with pressure. Cats being touched by or interacting too long with a person or their environment can’t focus and become agitated; their tails may get bushy, their pupils dilate, they turn around and mouth and paw, or even bite the hand of the person who is interacting with them.

Fortunately, many special needs can be treated using behavior modification training.

First, Marissa advises, “Identify the animal’s potential triggers and then remove it from those situations. For dogs and cats, it’s also really important to hire a trainer who uses positive reinforcement and can teach you how to read and help your dog or cat better.”

Also, be sure to socialize very young dogs and cats up to age 16 weeks to help them build a foundation of resiliency for a lifetime. Expose them to a variety of dogs or cats, kids, people and situations; and to being handled, touched and petted. Even dogs up to 8 months old may develop fear of something new in their surroundings.

For people considering a special needs pet, Marissa advises: think about your lifestyle, and whether you’re ready and able to commit the space and time to help the animal adjust. For instance, “Some cats are not cuddle cats. They need more physical play and mental stimulation to be engaged.
“Denver has an amazing population of people willing to adopt special needs animals,” Marissa says. “We have a variety of behavior programs to prepare pets for adoption and really improve their chances of being adopted into their forever homes.”

Just ask Lava, Jack and Kevin, three former special needs Dumb Friends League dogs featured below, about their new lives!

Three Special Needs Dogs Find New Careers!
Special love and training for special needs pets can create miracles! Lava, Jack and Kevin are three dogs now on their way to new lives.

Lava was surrendered for eating socks. His owners had already paid for two surgeries to remove them and knew they couldn’t control his lust for socks. Luckily, the League’s Veterinary Services team did a third surgery, finding another sock. Lava recovered in DFL’s care and was placed with Freedom Service Dogs. On June 10, Lava graduated as a professional therapy dog, already matched with a social worker to begin his new career.

Jack became part of the League’s Pet Care-avan after he was dropped off by a patron who’d brought him from Texas. Jack is incredibly high energy and extremely tennis ball-driven. Melanie in Pet Admissions caught on to his ball drive. Jack was placed with a local trainer and is now training to potentially become a bomb- or drug-sniffing dog for law enforcement!

Kevin was surrendered at a young age due to his overwhelming “mouthiness.” The Behavior team worked successfully with Kevin to teach him how to use his mouth appropriately, and Kevin was selected as a candidate for Search & Rescue. Lately, he got himself into a sticky situation, climbing a ladder to find a rooftop view—no doubt to get a better look at his search area!

Want to learn more about strategies to help pets with special behavior needs?

Whether you’re new or more experienced, the free monthly classes at the Quebec Street Shelter for volunteers are for you! Learn about a variety of topics related to League pets and enhance your skills and interactions with the animals. Click here to view the class calendar and register for classes.

From introducing a new dog to a home that already has a dog to training your cat to use its litter box, the League’s pet behavior handouts contain great information for handling many common situations that you can use right away to help your pets stay emotionally healthy and happy! Click here to view and download handouts.

Have a story you’d like to share? We’d love to hear it, click here to share your story!

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