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Siberian Husky started staring at the ceiling and walls and acting very scared

We have a female Siberian Husky whom we rescued about six months ago (her age is approximately 16 months). She was on the street, and her behavior indicates that she was abused. She was rather reserved at first and behaved destructively, but she is making incredible progress. She now feels very safe and comfortable with us and can be left in the house with our older male Husky without causing damage for up to six hours when we are at work.

Just last weekend, though, she started staring at the ceiling and walls and acting very scared. She then hid under the bed for hours. Since then she has continued this behavior for certain periods and then seems fine for a few hours. We recently discovered mice in our house, and it looks as though there is a nest in the attic, right in the spot she seems most afraid of. We believe she can hear them running around and doesn't know what the sounds are, so she gets scared. The odd thing, though, is that our other dog does not react at all; however, he is much more laid back than she is. We are trying to get rid of the mice and have been letting Cleo go under the bed as she pleases. She was so nervous last night that she kept us up most of the night. She even escaped from our house earlier in the week through a small bathroom window and then hid in the backyard until we got home. This is obviously causing her great distress. Do you think our theory is correct, or could she have mental problems? Is there anything else we can do to help calm her? We are very worried about her but would prefer not to put her on drugs.

There is a possibility your dog is suffering from a neurological problem; I would first pursue a medical examination to rule this out. If your veterinarian doesn't find any medical reason, I'm guessing you may be right about the mice. If Cleo has developed a phobia in reaction to the noises she is hearing, she will need serious behavioral modification to help her overcome it. Temporary drug therapy, as prescribed by a veterinary behaviorist, can help ease and speed her recovery.

Because the mice seemingly are the trigger for her defensive reaction and because she can't investigate them, she is going to have a hard time dropping her guard. I'm going to suggest a rather complicated experiment that you can try. Keep in mind it is not a replacement for medical assessment or behavioral evaluation/modification, both of which would benefit your dog. The objective is to see if the mice are really causing the problem and, if so, to help desensitize your dog to them a bit.

Try setting humane mouse traps in your attic that will catch the mice alive; be sure to make the release far from your home (cross a river or two if you want to err on the side of caution) so that they don't make an "incredible journey" back to your house. Or, if you've already dispatched all the mice via a more traditional (i.e., fatal) manner, go to the pet store and buy a mouse (or better yet, borrow one; ask if you can return him if you really don't want a pet mouse), along with a small cage with a little nest, water bottle and food, so as to be humane. Your temporary pet mouse may help you adjust your dog's weird attitude, so be grateful and kind to him! While your dog is outside, bring little Mickey inside (in his cage) and put him on your table or kitchen counter. Next bring Cleo in on a leash, keeping her close to you and restrained. Try to remain emotionally nonchalant rather than excited or reassuring; after all, we really don't think mice are scary, do we? If you stand on a chair screaming, our experiment is sure to backfire. On the other hand, if you are overly sympathetic and supportive, you may accidentally validate and reinforce Cleo's fear! Let Cleo investigate Mickey in his cage at her own pace. Don't force his presence on her (the mouse really will be grateful) but, instead, let her get comfortable with him. Say "Mousy!" when she looks at it or sniffs it, and act indifferent (If you really are mouse-phobic yourself, try to counter-condition yourself too--remember it is in the cage and a lot smaller than your big, carnivorous pets!) If Cleo becomes aggressive toward the mouse correct her with the leash by pulling back on it and distracting her attention away from Mickey. If she is comfortable or assertive rather than flighty, have someone put the caged mouse in the attic, right in the spot that seems to hold her attention.

Now, each time she looks at this spot, say "Shhh . . . listen! What is that?" and make an obvious point of looking up at the spot on the ceiling. Say something like, "Hmmm . . . I'll go check!" and then come down with the cage and the mouse. Say "Mousy!" and let her check the mouse out (nonaggressively!). Then put the mouse back up in the attic again. Repeat this several times, but now when she looks up, say "Mousy!" and then go get the mouse. Once you are certain all of Mickey's wild cousins have been removed, and your dog has been allowed to discover a real source for all of those mysterious sounds, she should seem less reactive to them. When she looks up, say "Mousy" without looking at or responding to her. If she continues to show interest, keep her on a leash, held by or attached to you as you relax in the house together. If she becomes concerned, say "Mousy" unenthusiastically and continue to go about your business with her by your side. See if her flight and your reactions have been reinforcing her overreactions; when you discontinue both, she should start to show less interest in the ceiling. At this point, you may return Mickey to the pet store or donate him to a local first grade schoolroom. If you decide to return him to the pet store, keep in mind that he's probably destined to be someone's pet snake's dinner rather than someone's pet. Personally, I think you owe the little guy, so if you haven't grown so fond of Mickey you just have to keep him, please try to find him a safe home. When you remove him from your home permanently, allow your dog to see you (or a helper) retrieve the cage from the attic, and allow the dog to accompany you as you walk the mouse to the car. As the car drives away, have the dog on a leash by your (or your helper's) side watching it go. Now Mickey is gone and, hopefully, your dog will rest easier having seen his exit.

This experiment should be amusing, even if it isn't effective. At a minimum, it will reduce any actual mouse-phobia either you or your dog may be suffering from as a result of their recent uninvited occupancy of your home. I really don't think I've given you a cure here. Most likely the dog will require some behavioral modification from a professional, and I do worry about the possibility of an underlying medical cause. Even though it may seem like I am taking your problem lightly, I really think you should seek help first from your veterinarian and then from a behaviorist.

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