Top 3 Dog Bite Prevention Tips

  • Dogs that behave as though they are shy, may actually be fearful and scared. They are most likely to become aggressive when they cannot escape or feel trapped, so avoid corning or overwhelming the dog by trying to pet or be near a shy, fearful dog.


  • Listen to the dog: Dogs have a normal progression of aggression starting with barking, then growling, snarling, snapping, and finally biting. If a dog is showing one of the early signs of aggression then remove them or yourself from the situation so that they do not feel the need to escalate to biting. Also, look for other stress signals such as a furrowed brow, muzzle licking, yawning, moving in slow motion, hypervigilance, panting, not accepting treats, etc.
  • So that your dog does not grow up to be a dog who bites, it’s important you socialize your dog starting as a puppy (less than 16 weeks of age) to vaccinate against fear, defensiveness, and aggression later in life. Although socialization must occur throughout life for maintenance of social relationships, at less than 16 weeks of age puppies are in their sensitive period of socialization. This is the time when they are more likely to overcome mild fears and habituate to people, other animals, noises, objects, etc. Remember not to socialize puppies in places frequented by dogs of unknown vaccination or disease status such as dog parks or pet stores.

By Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB


What to Consider When Adding to Your Four-Legged Family


It’s human nature to make impulse decisions. The puppy in the window is so adorable, who could resist? I’ve personally taken home more than a couple of rescue dogs without knowing much about their history and fortunately I’ve been lucky. Common sense tells us that this probably not the best way to choose a dog that may be with us for the next 16 years. In the moment you may forget about the expectations you have for your perfect dog. You may not take into account your busy lifestyle and the time commitment this pooch is going to require. What about breed, sex, and individual characteristics of the specific dog? The puppy is a cute fur ball now that could quickly grow into a 110 pound behemoth.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Exercise requirements: Do you want a running partner? If so a young, large breed such as a Labrador or Golden Retriever may be a good match. If a couch potato is more your style—which is nothing to be ashamed of (my personal dogs would win a contest for most time spent snoozing in a 24-hour period)—consider a small or toy breed, a Greyhound (dubbed the 60mph couch potato), or an adult dog.
Dr. Stepita's dog Snoopy

Dr. Stepita’s dog Snoopy

  • Age matters: What about a puppy vs. an adult dog? There are factors to consider here as well. If you obtain your puppy at under 16 weeks of age (ideally at under 12 weeks of age) you have influence over their sensitive period of socialization and should take full advantage of the opportunity. This is the period when puppies readily acquire behaviors that define their future abilities to form social partnerships with other dogs, animals, and people. That means that you can help vaccinate your puppy against future behavior problems by ensuring quality socialization during this time. I cannot stress enough that you will never get this period in your puppy’s life back and appropriate socialization is very important to your puppy’s future. See blog titled “Jump start behavioral health in your puppy with socialization!” for more information ( Of course with a puppy you will also have to take the time to help him learn more acceptable behaviors rather than those that come naturally such as mouthing, jumping on people, and urinating in the house.
  • ……And when your puppy grows up there could be problems. Dogs do not reach social maturity until 1-3 years of age and that is when I am most likely to see housemate dogs for fighting with each other. They may have gotten along beautifully when one (or both) was a puppy, but now resources such as your attention, food, and favorite toys carry new meaning. Research and personal experience have shown that two female dogs are most likely to fight whereas a male and female pair is least likely1. Two males living together are somewhere in the middle.
  • Adult dogs can also make great pets: Another pro of adopting an adult dog is that if they have lived with someone for at least 1 month, that person may be able to tell you about the individual dog’s personality, likes, dislikes, etc. This information can be invaluable, but then there is that honeymoon period. This is the period when the dog is seemingly an angel, with no behavior problems to speak of. After that time the dog starts to get comfortable and behavior problems may start to rear their ugly head.


  • Should I get by puppy from a breeder? Breeders vary widely from accidental breedings to backyard breeders to people who do not have experience breeding, but want their dog to have a litter to highly experienced breeders who are very conscientious and work hard to eliminate genetic defects and preserve the characteristics of the breed. The latter will likely interview you extensively as they don’t want their puppies going to just anyone. You can and should research the breeder, meet the parents, and interview owners who have added puppies from the same parents to their homes. You may be able to meet the mother of a rescue puppy as well, but less information may be known about the behavior and breed of the parents. Genetic testing is now available that can give you some idea of what a dog’s breed may be.
  • Medical requirements: Some breeds, such as English Bulldogs are notorious for having multiple medical problems which can become quite costly. Other dogs live into their teens with only a health check from your veterinarian once to twice yearly.
  • Grooming requirements: Some dogs have hair that grows and will require regular grooming.

So you don’t get suckered into an impulse purchase take some time to think about your expectations, life style and what type of dog (age, breed, sex, behavioral characteristics) would work best for your family situation. That way, when you see a cute puppy you will have a better idea of if he could be the right fit. Re-evaluate once yearly or as major changes occur in your life, living, and family situation.

The truth about canine urine marking


Have you ever wondered why dogs urine mark? Marking is most common in intact males and is characterized by urinating a small amount on upright (vertical) surfaces.The first step is to visit your veterinarian to rule out medical causes such as a urinary tract infection.  Urine marking is similar to other behavior problems in that the underlying motivation for the dog performing the behavior must be determined in order to solve the problem. Castration (aka neutering) decreases marking in 70-80% of male dogs, regardless of the age of castration.


Once hormonal causes are eliminated by castration, remaining causes include anxiety and territoriality. The first important step is to prevent situations that elicit marking. For example, a territorial pet can be prevented from watching dogs and people pass the home through windows by covering the windows ( Also, dogs tend to mark new objects in the house, so these objects should be kept out of the dogs’ reach. For example, avoid leaving a grocery bag or back pack on the ground when walking in the door with hands full. Instead keep these items out of reach of the dog. If the dog marks only when home alone or nobody is looking video tape can help determine what his triggers for marking may be and to make sure he is truly the culprit in the case of a multiple dog household. Urine marking is a normal behavior, so avoid punishing the dog if “caught in the act”. Punishment can also make his anxiety worse. Instead, if the dog is caught marking he can be interrupted by calling him away from the area and taken outside immediately, so that he can urinate in an appropriate place. Make sure to clean with a combination enzymatic/bacterial cleaner to degrade the urine rather than simply covering up the smell (my favorite is Anti-Icky-Poo, Once the triggers for marking are avoided other behavioral techniques such as desensitization and counter-conditioning are tailored specifically for the dog in order to help change his emotional response to these triggers. Sometimes anti-anxiety medications and supplements may also be used in conjunction with behavior modification. For more information visit your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist (


Dr. Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)

Noise Phobias Are Not Just for July 4th!


When I was a child growing up on the East Coast we rescued a cute little Yorkie/Silky dog named Cherry. I have fond memories of Cherry, but one thing that always seemed to bother her were thunderstorms. She would shake and hide in the bathtub during storms. I always felt bad for her but never knew what to do. Years later after having completed veterinary school and becoming a Board-Certified Veterinary Behaviorist I now know that there is a lot we can do to help dogs like Cherry.

Fortunately for us here in California we have minimal thunderstorms, but noise phobia (which can be a component of thunderstorm phobia) can happen anywhere and occurs virtually everywhere on New Year’s Eve and July 4th. Common triggers for noise phobia include fireworks, cars backfiring, gun shots, smoke alarms, and clicking noises (ie the heater or air conditioner turning on). Dogs with noise phobia may pant, pace, shake, hide, salivate, follow their owners, and even harm themselves trying to escape from their house/yard. However, don’t be fooled by dogs that are abnormally still and quiet during these events as dogs that exhibit “non-behavior” may also be anxious.

As it is difficult to modify problem behaviors when the noise trigger cannot be avoided it is best to start behavior modification well before unavoidable noises occur (such as in October rather than December in preparation for New Year’s Eve). When noise triggers cannot be avoided we use anti-anxiety medications or supplements. Short-acting medications may help relieve anxiety during unavoidable noises whereas long-term anti-anxiety medications facilitate behavior modification and may be used when noises are regular and unavoidable. Sedatives and tranquilizers are not usually an appropriate first choice medication as they do not actually treat anxiety and in some cases people report that they are more noise sensitive while taking certain sedatives. Essentially, the pet is sedated and does not display anxiety on the outside, but is extremely anxious on the inside. Before medications are used I always recommend that blood work is checked since these medications are metabolized by the liver and kidneys.


After a trip to your veterinarian to rule out any medical problems, such as pain, that could be making the pet more sensitive to noises, the treatment for noise phobia consists of several steps. The first is avoiding noise triggers as much as possible so that the pet does not continue to experience the fear/panic emotional response. Often, a command-response-reward program (commonly referred to as “Nothing in Life is Free”) is recommended to decrease any attention-seeking component of the behavior, create more structure and predictability for the pet, and increase the pet’s responsiveness to commands. The “meat and potatoes” of the plan consists of systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC), the primary technique we use to change the pet’s emotional response to scary noises. Desensitization involves introducing the pet to the noise trigger at elicits fear at so low of a level (volume) that the pet is calm and relaxed. Over time the noise is made louder, all the while staying below the dog’s threshold for fear and panic. Counter-conditioning is changing the pet’s emotional response to the noise trigger by associating it with something positive, such as a favorite treat or activity (ie playing fetch with a tennis ball). A head collar, such as a Gentle Leader ®, may be suggested for better control of the pet during DS/CC. Focus commands including eye contact and hand target commands may also be taught in preparation for DS/CC.

With some hard work and dedication noise phobias can be successfully managed and treated using behavior modification along with anti-anxiety medications in certain cases. For more information and to develop an individualized treatment plan for your pet please contact a Veterinary Behaviorist near you (!

Dr. Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)

Making Sense of Harnesses, Collars, and Leashes


Today dog owners have a number of choices when it comes to harnesses, collars, and leashes. This can sometimes be overwhelming, but in this article we will discuss common types and uses for these tools

Harnesses have traditionally been designed to encourage pulling; think of sled dogs. The leash attaches on the back. Newer harnesses have been designed to decrease pulling. The leash attaches on the front, just below the neck. These include the Easy Walk HarnessTM and SENSE-ation ® Harness. Visit the website for a video called “Fitting the Easy Walk HarnessTM”. Either type of harness may be recommended when dogs have a medical condition in which their windpipe collapses, called a collapsing trachea, as harnesses do not put any pressure on the windpipe. A third type of harness designed to decrease pulling has thin band of material (which is sometimes padded) that pulls against the armpits. These harnesses decrease pulling due to the uncomfortable and sometimes painful pressure exerted on the armpits and are not recommended.

There are many more types of collars than harnesses. A flat buckle collar is the most common type. This type of collar is good for attaching your dog’s tags to and for dogs that walk well on leash. A martingale or limited slip collar is most commonly used with Greyhounds and other breeds that have a narrow head since other collars tend to slip off of them easily. This type of collar constricts around the neck when pulled up until a certain point. It is important that the double D rings be able to meet; otherwise these collars can tighten too much and choke the dog.

Limited Slip Collar

Limited Slip Collar

Training (aka choke) collars and prong (aka pinch) collars have been used for traditional dog training. In this type of training, the collar is sharply jerked to give a correction. This type of training focuses on punishing the dog and is largely outdated with the risk of creating many long-term negative consequences such as fear, anxiety and aggression. Prong collars can even cause wounds to the skin. It is also possible to strangle a dog with a choke collar that is improperly used. The field of dog training has advanced greatly in the last 20 years and today positive reinforcement methods are recommended which focus on setting the dog up to succeed and rewarding the dog for good behavior. For dogs that are more difficult to control, that pull or are aggressive, often times a head collar, such as the Gentle Leader ®, is recommended. To see a video on how to introduce a head collar visit the website The video is called “Conditioning and Emotional Response”. Note: head collars should not be used with dogs that have a history of neck pain. They also should not be used while running/moving quickly and with a leash longer than 4-6 feet.

Finally, leashes also come in different forms. Average leashes are 6 feet in length, made from nylon or leather, and are ideal for walking, running, hiking, and training. Sports, such a tracking, utilize leashes that are longer. Retractable leashes give dogs more freedom to roam without the owner having to continually adjust the length of the leash, but they pose a hazard as the owner does not have as much control of the dog, and people and other animals can even get seriously injured if they are tangled by the leash. Another type of leash that does not offer much control and therefore is not usually recommended, but is more convenient to owners of multiple dogs is a leash that splits into two leashes at the end, so that two dogs can be walked on the same leash together.

– Dr. Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)

Aggression, it’s more common than you think


The most common problem I see in my dog and cat behavior practice is aggression. Aggression can be directed at other animals, people or objects (i.e. vehicles). In dogs aggression can include lunging, barking, growling, snarling, lip lifting, snapping, and biting. Cats can sometimes show more subtle signs of aggression such as staring as well as more overt signs including hissing, growling, scratching and biting. Most of the time aggression is a normal behavior (your dog growling is equivalent to you as a human raising your voice), but not acceptable in our human society.

The most common reason for underlying aggression is fear. Other reasons may include territoriality, possessiveness (over a particular type of item such as food or a toy), hierarchical/ social status aggression between two animals, dominance, play aggression, medical or pain-induced, maternal and re-directed aggression (when aggression is directed not at the primary target, but a closer target or a target that interacts with the animal when they are in an aggressive state). In cats another form of aggression is called petting-induced aggression. It is important to determine the reason for the pet’s aggression in order to determine the most appropriate treatment plan.


Aggression is usually not cured, rather it is a problem we manage to decrease the chance of the behavior occurring. Prevention of behavior problems, including aggression, is the best medicine and this is why we recommend socialization for puppies 8-16 weeks of age (a week after an initial parvo/distemper vaccination and deworming). Puppies should meet new people and healthy, vaccinated dogs on a daily basis during this time. They should be exposed to anything else they could encounter later in life (i.e. vacuums, stairs, rain, people in uniform, men with beards, etc) to help minimize the chance of fear and aggression later in life. It is important to take precautions and not take puppies to places highly trafficked by dogs of unknown health or vaccination status (i.e. parks, streets, dog parks or pet stores).

The first step in treating aggression is having your pet examined by your primary care veterinarian, since any underlying medical problem can lead to irritability and aggression. It is also recommended to avoid all situations in which the pet is aggressive so they do not continue to practice the behavior and learn that it works. For example, if your dog looks out the window and barks and growls at strangers passing the house, then close the blinds or put up wallpaper for windows.

Other behavior modification techniques will be prescribed based on the type of aggression and situations in which the aggression occurs. These techniques may include creating more structure and predictability for the pet, learning new commands such eye contact or hand target, in dogs introducing a head collar for better control and using pheromones (AdaptilTM for dogs and Feliway ® for cats). Often these steps are in preparation to begin a desensitization and counter-conditioning program, the primary technique we use to change your pet’s emotional response to triggers of fear and aggression. In addition, sometimes anti-anxiety medications are recommended; however medications are generally not a first line treatment and should not be used without concurrent behavior modification.

– Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)

Jump start behavioral health in your puppy with socialization!


The days of keeping your puppy confined to the house until 16 weeks of age are over! The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (, a well respected group of veterinarians who share an interest in understanding behavior in animals, believe it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive socialization as early as 7-8 weeks of age after a minimum of one set of vaccines and deworming at least 7 days prior to the first class, with other healthy dogs in an environment that is clean, not in places such as dog parks.

Socialization is the process by which pets develop a relationship with animals of their own species, other species, and humans. With adequate socialization starting as a young puppy, pets are often able to maintain these relationships for life, helping to prevent behavior problems. Although socialization should be continued throughout life, pets are more likely to be defensive, fearful, and possibly aggressive later in life if not properly socialized during their sensitive socialization period, between 3 and 16 weeks of age.


Here is a checklist of some, but not all, experiences your puppy should have before 16 weeks of age. Always associate the experiences with high value rewards such as treats or a tennis ball. Every puppy is different so make sure to go slow if your puppy shows signs of fear or anxiety. If your puppy shows aggression or extreme fear contact your veterinarian immediately.

___ Veterinarian/ Veterinary technicians

___ Person wearing hat

___ Other animals (including non-dog)

___ You with vacuum

___ Person (child & adult) on bike & roller blades

___ Jogger

___Stranger on street

___ You mowing grass

___ Person with umbrella, open and close umbrella

___ Toddler (supervised)

___ Person with coat, take coat on and off

___ Man with beard

___ Drive – thru window or toll booth

___ Children playing ball

___ Walk on different surfaces (soft, hard, unsteady)

___ Mailman

___ Person with wheelchair, walker, stroller

___ Rain

___ Person in uniform (police, etc)

___ You with hair dryer

___ Handle your puppy on a daily basis (ears, mouth, paws, belly, tail, etc)

Remember: Avoid socializing your puppy in areas frequented by dogs of unknown vaccination status such as dog parks.

Here is a list of recommended books to use as a guide in raising your puppy:

  • The Perfect Puppy by Gwen Bailey
  • An Owner’s Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet: Dog Behavior by Ian Dunbar, Ph.D., MRCVS
  • Raising a Behaviorally Healthy Puppy by Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D. and Daniel Estep, Ph.D

What other experiences can you think of that will be important for your puppy? Let me know for the next blog!

– Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)