5 Rules to Shaping Your Pet’s Behavior
Many of us love our pets so much that we think of them as almost human. So when we find them digging, clawing, pouncing, or doing something else that is normal for a four-legged beast, we may be shocked. What has gotten into our precious pet?
What is natural for pets can sometimes drive people absolutely nuts. Pet owners need not despair, however. You can convert a four-legged wild child into Miss (or Mr.) Manners just by using a little pet psychology.
Save your sanity—and your sofa—by first figuring out what is triggering the behavior. Your veterinarian can help you make sure the source is not a health problem, an important consideration to rule out first. Another common cause for abnormal behavior is stress, which, for instance, could result from any sudden change in the household like adding a new pet. It could also be that your pet is just plain bored and needs more entertainment and exercise added to his daily mix.
Whatever the source of the problem, you will be more successful in finding a suitable solution if you address the cause rather than merely react to the symptoms. That is the advice of Dr. Andrew Luescher, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Purdue University and one of the nation’s top pet behavior specialists.
Dr. Luescher emphasizes the importance of consistency in addressing behavior issues. As he explains, “If you react one way to a behavior and another way the next time, you can confuse your pet. He will not be able to predict what is expected of him. I equate it to a person who comes to a friend’s house to play a new card game. The rules are explained and he thinks he understands, only to have a new rule added during the game. He becomes frustrated.”
GOOD AS GOLD
Here are a five golden rules to follow when attempting to reshape your pet’s behavior:
- Start behavior training early. The best time to teach is when your pets are puppies or kittens, when they are most receptive. But do not think you cannot teach an old dog (or cat) a new trick, because you can.
- Make the training session fun. Never try to teach your pet when you are feeling harried or stressed. Animals can tap into our stress levels and sense impatience. Be encouraging, upbeat, and patient.
- Keep the lessons short. Typically, animals do not have a long attention span. Spend no more than 5 minutes at a time when training a cat and 10 minutes, on average, with a dog.
- Identify what motivates your pet. Pets are much more willing to learn a new behavior when they anticipate a reward as the payoff. For cats, it can be a feathered toy you dangle in front of their eyes for them to chase or offering a pinch of catnip. For dogs, it can be tiny pieces of premium treats you dole out each time they comply with your commands.
- Communicate clearly and completely. Pets not only heed your vocal tones, but they pay a lot of attention to your gestures and postures. So, if you want your dog to sit, for example, be sure to use the same hand signal each time and do not make it similar to your signal for your dog to roll over or to stay.
Hopefully, these general guidelines will get you and your pet on the right foot toward good behavior. Following are a few species-specific considerations to keep in mind.
COUNTERING YOUR CAT’S BAD HABITS
You can learn to “outfox” your feline, says Dr. Arnold Plotnick, owner of the Manhattan Cat Specialists Clinic in New York City and medical editor for Catnip magazine. First, identify the misbehavior, stop it, and then redirect your cat to an appropriate place to perform its feline needs.
Dr. Plotnick uses the example of the cat who likes to camp out on the kitchen counter. Now that you have identified the behavior, how do you stop it? Dr. Plotnick has a few suggestions, this time using negative reinforcement. “Each time you catch your cat on the counter, you need to immediately voice your displeasure with a stern ‘No!’ and/or follow with a squirt from a water bottle,” he advises. Alternatively, you could place double-sided tape on the counters so when your leaping cat lands, the surface is anything but inviting.
The next step is to redirect. For example, provide your cat with a more suitable perch—such as a kitty condo or cat tree. This type of fun, interactive object can become more valuable “real estate” in your cat’s mind than the cold, boring kitchen counter.
“This way, your cat is happy to be able to survey the world in her own place and you get your kitchen counter back to eat your dinner in peace,” says Dr. Plotnick.
TACKLING A TOUCHY PROBLEM
Dogs, on the other hand, are born pleasers for the most part. They love being with you. Work that to your advantage in teaching them, says Dr. Luescher. “Use food treats to motivate them, and strive for little successes along the way,” he says. “Make it a positive experience.”
Say, for example, that your dog loves to greet you and guests by leaping up on them. That may have been cute when your dog was a 5-pound pup, but it quickly becomes annoying, not to mention dangerous, when your dog gets bigger.
What is the best solution? Ideally, you should train your pup when he is still young and lightweight that the best way to greet is to approach and sit in front of the guest. Teach him the “sit” command and reward him each time he sits on cue. If he jumps, withhold any food treat, turn your back to him, and walk away. But when you say “sit” and he does it, follow it up with lots of praise and a reward.
“Employing positive reinforcement, that is, giving something like a treat or praise for good behavior, works very effectively with dogs,” says Dr. Luescher. “So does what is known as negative punishment, in which you take away something good from a dog as a consequence of a bad behavior. These two approaches are the safest and most effective to use in shaping canine behavior.”
TOOLS OF THE TRAINED
Sometimes, you need to enlist the aid of special training products*:
- A head halter or harness can help you control your dog on walks, especially if he is prone to yank and tug on his leash.
- “Spray collars” that emit a strong citrus scent may help curb excessive barking tendencies.
- Bitter Apple Spray can discourage mouthing or playful nips from your dog, as well as undesirable chewing.
Be sure to consult with your veterinarian about which products are safe and appropriate for your pet and the correct methods of using them.
*Before using any product, read the label completely, with particular attention to any warnings as well as instructions regarding use. If you have any concerns regarding the safety or correct use of any product, ask the advice of your veterinary professional.