SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

Ask a behaviourist
Ask a Behaviourist

My dog Phoebe barks every time I come home from work. Why does she do this, and do you have any tips to make her stop?

It’s important to remember that barking is a normal dog behaviour. Dogs were originally trained and bred to bark. There are lots of reasons why a dog could be barking. If Phoebe is barking when you get home from work, it’s most likely a bark to express her excitement – she’s happy to see you! If you use punishment as a way to prevent Phoebe’s barking when you get home, you’ll be punishing her joy to see you.

Simply ignoring the behaviour may not work, especially if Phoebe has been barking when you get home for a long time. Instead, work on replacing the behaviour you don’t like with another action. When you get home and Phoebe starts barking, ask her to sit or fetch a toy and reward her following that instruction with a treat. My dog Isabella also barks with excitement when I get home, and over time she has learnt that barking stops when I acknowledge her and greet her calmly by giving her a few pats or ear rubs.

On an extra note, some of this extreme behaviour can be due to mild separation anxiety, so being calm, relaxed and not encouraging the excessive vocalisation are also important. By consistently encouraging Phoebe to stop barking and sit or fetch a toy, I’m sure you can achieve this too. Good luck!

My puppy Beau buries every bone I give him in the garden, and then digs it up two weeks later. Why does he do this?

Burying food is an instinctive behaviour. Even though you lovingly fill Beau’s bowl with food every day, this caching trait is still strong. This behaviour is derived from the wild, where dogs would bury their food for later in case of a food shortage. Some dogs are more inclined to do this than others. We don’t know why some dogs are so stimulated by the smell of their bone when it is old and rotting, but this is also an instinctive behaviour.

Preventing this behaviour can be difficult to stop, but it can be redirected. The best way to do this is by giving Beau his own appropriate area to dig. If you’d rather keep him out of the garden, you could get him a sandpit where he is free to dig and bury. Encourage him to use this space by filling toilet paper rolls with treats and hide them in there.

This will reward Beau for digging in his own space and hopefully keep him out of the veggie patch! The silver lining is that this is a great enrichment idea, and will keep Beau busy and happy if you’re not at home.

My cat Toby came home really stressed out last night. He didn’t want to be touched, and sat alone in a dark room all night. He is much better this morning, but why was he acting like this?

When cats go outside, there are so many things that can happen to them without us ever knowing. Toby could have got a fright, been chased by a dog, had a near-miss with a car, been scared by fireworks, or been in a fight with another cat in the neighbourhood.

It’s likely that Toby felt trapped or had a fearful event, and that’s why he came home distressed. Just like a person who has been stressed or scared, Toby needed time to calm down. If this happens again, the best thing to do is give Toby space to calm down. Allow him to retreat to a quiet room, and play some music to help him relax. Make sure that you let Toby choose when he’s ready to leave and interact with you again.

Remember that you can’t reinforce fear by comforting, so do offer pats and cuddles. Just don’t take it personally if he doesn’t want them, and don’t force affection on him. In some cases, the fearful event can be so stressful that cats can be distressed for several days, or even weeks. In these circumstances I suggest that you watch his behaviour and ensure he is eating, drinking and toileting normally. Check Toby doesn’t have any physical wounds and that he’s not in pain.

If you have any concerns, see a vet sooner rather than later. If you’re worried about any of these things, or if his distressed state continues into the following week, seek veterinary attention. Also note that when cats are fearful or in pain they can be aggressive, so be careful.

Why does my bunny Eddie chew through cords? How can I get him to stop?

Chewing is a natural behaviour for rabbits. In fact, it’s essential for them to help keep their continuously growing incisors and molars short. Cords for our electronics look a lot like branches or tree roots, and a curious bunny will naturally want to explore this and see if it’s food the best way they know how – by chewing them. Rabbits also chew materials to create a nest or environment, so this could also be a reason for Eddie’s chewing.

The best way to stop your cords being chewed and to protect your rabbit from the risk of electrocution is to thoroughly rabbit-proof them. Use cord covers, invest in plastic tubing that goes over the cords, and – even better – move the cords completely out of reach of a curious bunny. It’s important for your rabbits to have access to appropriate things they can chew, so make sure you give Eddie lots of hay and blocks that he can nibble on.

Have you got a question you’d like Dr Jess Beer to answer? Please email it to animalsvoice@spca.nz and it could be chosen for our next column.

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