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Training overprotective Havanese dog to be less aggressive

Havanese dogs are intelligent and trainable.

Havanese dogs are intelligent and trainable. Credit: Dreamstime

Q I have a Havanese dog who is approximately 7 years old. My daughter and I adopted him from North Shore Animal league five years ago, but since she moved out he’s become very attached to me. He is very loving. He follows me all over and sleeps with me. He is walked at least three times a day.

The problem is, he can sometimes become very aggressive and bark and growl when he sees strangers on our walks through the neighborhood. Sometimes, I take him to the beach with me and he will sit quietly next to me, but if someone approaches us, he will growl and bark in a very aggressive manner. I am always very careful with him, especially around children who he does not seem to like either. He is also very aggressive toward my significant other when I’m around, but during the day when I’m not home he is fine with him.

— Toby, Syosset

A You have an overprotective dog. While that trait might be great if you are in a danger, it’s not a welcome trait in the everyday life of a family dog.

Sometimes, without knowing it, dog owners reinforce overprotective behaviors simply by not correcting a behavior when it happens. Correcting a behavior is basically not letting him get away with it. It’s a verbal correction of “no,” and removing him from the situation so he can’t continue the behavior. Saying “no” at the beach for example, might make him stop growling, but it doesn’t make him stop looking at the people around you who he sees as a threat. His eyes need to be focused on you, so he can learn from your body language and voice and tone as to whether a situation needs his attention.

The good news is, your Havanese is a very smart and trainable dog, so through obedience training, you can teach him to shift his gaze from looking outward to always looking to you for instructions on how to behave. Begin teaching him to look at you by saying his name about 25 times in a row during one- to two-minute training sessions held three times a day. When he makes eye contact, click a clicker and give him a tiny treat. When he makes eye contact every time you say his name, then use the clicker to train him to “sit” and “down,” again doing this several times a day. Don’t worry about “stay” right now. Do these sessions quickly, so he doesn’t have time to think about anything else but what you are asking him to do.

Next, if he barks and growls at anyone while you are walking him on a leash, you have two options. One is to stop abruptly, turn, and walk in the other direction. If you do this even when no one is around, he will begin to think he better pay attention to you.

The other option, which I use frequently when my dog barks at other dogs or people, is to step in between him and the thing he is barking at, ask him to sit, and then turn with my back to him, but facing the perceived “threat.” Keep the leash tight so he can’t get in front of you or peak his head around you. The idea behind this is to let him know you got this, and you don’t need him to protect you, and that it’s actually your job to protect him. Again, you are letting him know it’s OK to relax and leave things up to you.

Finally, never force him to interact with people, but socialize him little by little. Determine how far away people need to be before he relaxes and give him treats for relaxing. Slowly move closer to people as he progresses, always giving him a treat for staying calm around people. Stay vigilant with this training, and you will begin to reshape his behavior.

Q How do I get a feral cat to use the litter box? He comes in the house and is very affectionate, but one problem: He will not use the litter pan. He goes on my carpet.

— Gloria, Center Valley, Pennsylvania

A It can be difficult to get a feral cat to use the litter box, but you can purchase what’s called “a litter box attractant” that you can sprinkle on your litter to attract him to the box. I would also add a second litter box, so he has two places to go.

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