February 25, 2010
From urinating on the floor to digging up the yard, many pets have behaviors that irritate their owners. If your pet is beginning to do something that drives you nuts, do something about it now. Behaviors tend to get worse as time goes on, so interfering early can make a big difference.
The first thing you need to do if your pet is manifesting some kind of behavior change is to see your veterinarian. He or she will make sure that the behavior is not caused by some kind of physical change. Your veterinarian will also help you specify the problem behavior and maybe even give it a name. Be sure to be prepared for this visit by recording everything you can think of that may be relevant to the behavior. Your veterinarian will want to understand your family dynamics so that the entire family can participate in the treatment program.
You, your pet’s guardian, are the key to changing your pet’s behavior. For a pet to change, you must also change. We joke that we are really training the owner, not the pet, but it isn’t really a joke.
For most behaviors like aggression or anxiety, it is best to start by simply avoiding the trigger that causes the behavior. For example, don’t leave a dog with separation anxiety alone until he has been appropriately re-conditioned. In this case you might use doggy day-care. If your cat turns around and bites you when you pet his rump, don’t pet his rump.
One key to altering unwanted behaviors is to teach your pet an alternate behavior. For instance, if your pet gets too excited when visitors arrive at the door, replace that behavior with a “sit and stay” in the kitchen. It takes two people to train this behavior, but it works well. Simply ring the doorbell while your partner takes the dog into the kitchen and gives the dog a treat. Pretty soon the dog will learn that “doorbell” means “go to kitchen and get food.” Alternative behaviors work for all kinds of problems but sometimes you have to get creative.
Your response to an undesirable behavior must be calm and consistent. Finding something after the fact, like a mess of garbage in the kitchen or feces on the floor, cannot be dealt with by freaking out and yelling at the pet. The key is to clean up calmly and, in the future, avoid the trigger that resulted in this behavior. For example, put child safety locks on the garbage cabinet. An excited pet that is doing something “bad” like digging or barking should simply be removed from the situation that is triggering the behavior. For instance, digging results in calmly being brought inside.
Punishment rarely works and can make some behaviors worse. Yelling at a barking dog will usually increase his barking behavior. Whereas ignoring the barking can often result in the ceasing of the barking for attention. To the contrary, comforting a dog with an attention seeking behavior can also make it worse. It is well documented that thunderstorm anxiety gets worse if you coddle your pet during a storm.
Be prepared to use pheromones, medications and all kinds of appropriate devices to help your pet deal with a behavior problem. Leashes and head collars can help you gain control of your pet in an unruly situation. Capes and harnesses can be calming. And, toys can be used to distract pets from unwanted behavior. Your veterinarian can help you get started and an experienced trainer can help in the long run.