Working dogs need a job to perform

Expert helps Ohio couple solve pet's behavioral issue

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AKRON, Ohio — An Akron, Ohio, couple was confounded when their rescued great Pyrenees mountain dog began scattering her food around the kitchen and burying it under throw rugs.

Jim Michel, a retired postal worker, began searching for reasons why the normally calm, 6-year-old Maddie began exhibiting the bizarre behavior about a year ago. His wife, Jeanette, noted that it started while they were caring for their son's puppy.

"She started taking food from her bowl and giving it to the puppy. She was trying to make sure the puppy ate," Jeanette said.

Maddie's ancestors were bred in the Pyrenees mountain range between southern France and northern Spain to protect livestock. The dogs are famed for their calm, composed demeanor. Their patience makes them great companions for children, and their loyalty makes them great pets.

Maddie's behavior stumped the couple who are very well versed in dog care. After the puppy went home and the behavior escalated, Jim consulted books written by highly respected animal behaviorists.

"But I was looking for answers to this specific problem. I wasn't looking at the whole picture," he said he realized.

The couple took the normally docile dog to their veterinarian for a physical exam. The vet did not have a clue as to what was causing the change in

Maddie's behavior, which was quickly turning into an obsession.

They tried different methods to help her, including throwing away the food she spread as a punishment. But that only caused Maddie to lose weight.

In March, the couple appealed to the Beacon Journal's pet expert panel, which answers questions from readers about animal issues each week.

Dr. Elizabeth Feltes of the Behavior Clinic in Olmsted Falls suggested (after Maddie was given a clean bill of health by her vet) that the couple put her food inside enrichment toys so she would have to "work" for it.

Dr. Feltes' answer sparked an "aha" moment, said Jim.

"It all started to make sense. Maddie is a working dog and needs to be challenged. She needed a job to do," he said.

Because she was bred to sit quietly but constantly be alert for predators, Maddie always appears calm. It was easy to forget that her daily 2-mile walks weren't enough to keep her brain engaged, too, he said.

Maddie and Jeanette, a retired grade-school teacher, had worked as a Doggie Brigade team at Akron Children's Hospital. They were forced to give up the activity when Jeannette began volunteering at the hospital.

"Her favorite place was the registration area where kids would wait for surgery," said Jeanette.

"She sensed the kids' nervousness. She would go over and place her head in their laps. It would break your heart," said Jim.

She lost her "job" when she dropped out of the Doggie Brigade program, they realized.

After getting Dr. Feltes' advice, the couple began pulling out toys that Maddie had never shown any interest in. They loaded one with kibble, making a game out of feeding time. Over the span of five days, Maddie gradually learned a new job, spinning the toys around to release her food.

When the toy is empty of food and Maddie is finished eating, she noses it under an antique dry sink in the foyer, where Jim or Jeanette will find it and refill it at feeding time.

Maddie no longer spreads food, they said.

"Slowly but surely, the problem is disappearing," the Firestone Park, Ohio, couple wrote in May. "We have the occasional piece from her toy on the floor, and we have to retrieve the toy from under the dry sink, but that is a pleasure."

Dr. Feltes said she was glad the problem has been solved.

“It’s such a pleasure helping pet owners read their companion animal’s behavior and help find a solution that works for both the two- and four-legged family members.”