David's golden retriever Bosco has begun to behave strangely when the fly swatter is brought out.
Bosco is nearly 2 years old, and the family adopted him when he was just a young pup. David wonders why Bosco is now reacting this way, and wonders if he's been hit or abused in some manner.
First, it's important to recognize that a behavioral analysis is much more involved than having a dog owner describe a dog's behavior and then weighing in on the cause or cure. As a behavior counselor, I meet with dogs and their owners, and get a detailed history of the dog, his behavior and his living situation before weighing in on a plan of action. I believe, however, that in this case, I can safely make an exception.
What I believe you are seeing in Bosco is a conditioned response to a specific article — the fly swatter. When Bosco was a youngster, he had no opinion of the fly swatter; no reason to like it, no reason to fear it.
But over the past two years, he has repeatedly witnessed rather violent behavior in association with this object. In short, each time a member of the family picks up the fly swatter, it is whacked against the wall, or the counter, which makes him uncomfortable. So now, Bosco is beginning to respond to the mere presence of the fly swatter, relying on his past experiences to predict what will happen next. This is a fairly common reaction pertaining to dogs that grow up inside a home, where on occasion a family member grabs a swatter to violently end the life of an annoying fly.
Think for a moment of the dog's perspective. Flies irritate us — it's evident in our behavior. I know when I grab and use the swatter, it's not to gently direct the fly out of the house; it's to whack at him as hard as I can, cursing if I miss. I move quickly, and I appear to be angry. For some reason, I get a lot of pleasure in using excessive force on flies. No wonder my dogs scatter when I grab for it; Bosco probably winces as well.
To remedy the situation, you will need to desensitize Bosco to the fly swatter. Simply put, he needs to spend time around the swatter when it isn't being used in a frightful manner. You may want to start by just leaving it out on the floor for a few days. Let Bosco check it out on his own, when he's ready. Next, you might pair the swatter with things or activities that Bosco enjoys. Does he love to eat? Great, then make sure the swatter lives next to the food bowl for a while. Does he have a special bed? The swatter should be nearby that location, too.
Once Bosco has reconciled himself with the stationary swatter, occasionally pick it up and move it, gently. Do this when Bosco is engaged in an activity that he enjoys — like eating, getting a belly rub, playing fetch, etc. When he is able to ignore the swatter, or at least not respond negatively around it, go ahead and put it away, but bring it out occasionally, in a benign manner. And next time you grab it to end the life of a pesky fly, talk nicely to that fly as you gently swat him to death — Bosco will be watching.
Lisa Moore's pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Weekly Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.