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Departures rouse sheltie’s herding instincts
Dear Dr. Spiegel, We have a 3 year old "Sheltie" named "Gizmo" who was four months old when we purchased him from a private party. For the first four months of his life he lived in an apartment with a cat and two very small children and did not receive much in the way of training. When we brought him home, we used a crate and had immediate success with "housebreaking." Gizmo is intelligent and easy to train and very obedient except for an occasional squirrel chase outside our yard. The only real problem we have with him is his intense behavior when anyone leaves the house. He runs circles around chairs as the person leaves and races through the house to the front window to watch the car drive away. Gizmo sometimes cries and barks during these episodes and seems very upset. He calms down quickly and there is no destructive damage done. Is there some way to reduce the intensity or eliminate this exhibited anxiety? Sincerely, F. & B.C., Wilmington
Dear F. & B.C., From what you've said there is no indication that this is an anxiety- related reaction. To really understand the behavior fully, I'd want to "roll back the videotape" to know what Gizmo does as people are arriving, and as the evening progresses, all of which is almost certainly tied into the "grand finale" as your guests are rising to depart. By seeing/describing the behavior in the full context of the whole visit and seeing how he behaves in similar situations (like when one of the two of you leave the house), one can determine what is really going on. It also helps to know the circumstances surrounding the very first time you saw him do this. If he is not, at any point, hesitant in approaching visitors then he is probably not anxious/fearful in these situations. If, however, he is keeping his distance from visitors, moving away with their approaches toward him, and/or reacting suddenly to their movements (after they haven't moved for some time, then there may be some fear/anxiety, and/or strong protective tendencies. Further history/observation would distinguish between these "differential diagnoses." As you can see, with limited information, certainty/precision lessen in degree as well. Despite the fact that I am operating with a handicap; that is, not having a definitive diagnosis (100% certainty), I have a strong suspicion about what is happening in your situation. Gizmo sounds like a happy, friendly, and devoted companion. I get the impression that he really likes company, and that when your company gets up to go (which is pretty exciting in contrast to everyone sitting around), Gizmo gets excited, begins his circling, and then goes to the window to see the source of excitement as it is leaving; and then he settles. His excitement is being expressed through the body of a young energetic "sheltie"; and he is reverting to his body's natural behavioral tendencies. Shelties (Shetland Sheepdogs) like to herd. These "miniature collies" were bred in the 1700's on Great Britain's Shetland Islands to herd the correspondingly diminutive domestic livestock of these islands: miniature cattle, dwarf sheep and tiny Shetland ponies. Herding to a sheltie, and many other herding dogs, means running circles around and around the target of their interest. And since most shelties are kept as pets, and are not "working dogs", these natural herding tendencies often come out in other forms... particularly, in play and at other times of excitement. The perceived suddenness with which people get up to leave can affect this display as well. The more sudden the departure, the more excited he may become. A slower, more gradual departure will likely decrease the intensity of his reaction. While it is not completely clear whether this is just a response of excitement or he is actually getting upset (which can appear very similar... I'd need to see a videotape, or more ideally him in person to be sure), treating it in the following way should prove helpful in either case. If you teach him to stay reliably, you can create a routine whereby he is rewarded for staying as people are getting up and leaving. While he is undergoing this modification of his behavior (which takes a bit of work and time), I would try breaking the leaving routine into slower, gradual phases. If leaving is a get up and go event taking only a few minutes, space it out, so that you get up first and continue talking for a minute or so; then your company can stand up individually, continuing the conversation standing for a few minutes; then walk 1/4 way toward the door, and stand and talk for another few minutes; then 1/2 way to door; then @ door. Do some sits w/ attention given as reward prior to any standing up and continue it in each phase of the leaving before any circling has even started. Stays will be more appropriate to this situation, but at this point it is too much to expect him to "stay" amidst the excitement of leaving (even in phases). I am pleased to introduce my internet site http://www.petpsych.com