Q: I just adopted a new dog and want to start things off on the right foot. We're still getting to know each other, and while I haven't noticed any behavior issues I want to be ready in case something comes up. Got any advice?
A: Whether you adopt a puppy or an older dog, a little training goes a long way toward preserving a happy, healthy relationship. I asked professional dog trainers to share the most prevalent behavior issues, along with tools to address the problem. Here are the top five, with more to come next week. As you set goals and, perhaps even a few resolutions for the New Year, try these tips to promote good behavior in 2012.
Problem No. 1: Lack of potty training
Before addressing any behavior issues, animal trainer Kristen Collins of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) says pet owners should start with a thorough veterinary exam. This helps rule out potential medical conditions. She also recommends watching pets carefully during potty time.
“Most people don’t realize they need to supervise in the beginning,” she says. “That is one of the biggest ways to develop a good habit. If the option of going inside is not there, it’s more likely that — when you get them outside — they will go.”
To reinforce good behavior, reward pets for going in the proper place. Remember, they will make mistakes. While it may be tempting to get frustrated, avoid punishing pets when you find accidents after the fact.
“It’s useless,” Collins says. “That moment is gone in the animal’s brain.”
While perfect in almost every way, sometimes cats need remedial potty training, too. Cats may soil outside the litter box to mark their territory. Less than ideal litter box conditions also trigger feline poop protests, Collins says. To correct the issue, make sure that your cat has more than one litter box available. Also, pay attention to what’s inside that litter box. Avoid switching litter brands, clean the box frequently and pay attention to the amount of litter inside.
“If the amount is too shallow or too deep, that can turn the cat off,” Collins says. “You may need to avoid using linings or box covers if cats are not making it to the box.”
Problem No. 2: Destructive pets
My dog Lulu has long forgotten the pair of green suede, peep-toe pumps that she gnawed to oblivion. Needless to say the memory still haunts me. Collins notes that destroyed property ranks high among the reasons people relinquish pets. But you can teach your dog or cat to ignore valuable possessions. Start by providing acceptable alternatives. For dogs, that means replacing shoes with chew toys from companies like Planet Dog, which groups items based on a dog’s age and chewing tendencies. (My Lulu is a power chewer who requires the toughest toys.)
To address couch-scratching felines, create a barrier to their favorite spot and redirect their attention to scratching posts or cat trees placed in the same area. Eventually, new habits will develop. Cats also enjoy playing with shoelaces, string and yarn, which can lead to intestinal issues. Keep those items out of reach and replace them with fun, interactive toys. Nylabone, a company known for its line of super-tough chews and dog toys, recently launched a line of cat toys that promote dental health, exercise and a cat’s natural instinct to hunt.
“After the cat or dog is hooked on the right stuff, then you can start to increase freedom, as long as you supervise or redirect,” Collins says. Also, be sure to monitor pets during playtime, and remove any toys that break or present a choking hazard. To help frazzled pet owners around the clock, the ASPCA offers a “Virtual Pet Behaviorist,” filled with expert advice on a wealth of pet issues.
Problem No. 3: Excessive vocalization (aka noisy pets)
If it is a new problem, Collins recommends a check-up to rule out potential health issues that may be causing pain. She also notes that excessive vocalization typically stems from other problems, such as a lack of mental or physical exercise. Before crating your dog and heading off to work, take a long walk around the neighborhood so that your pet is ready for a nap. Cats also may become vocal if they lack mental and physical stimulation. Collins recommends spending five to 10 minutes on the floor playing with your cat each day to relieve boredom.
Sometimes that vocalization stems from the need to guard your home from outside threats, such as a stray cat or neighbors treading on your sidewalk (the horror!). Reduce your pet’s guard-dog vocalizations by limiting access to windows that face high-traffic areas. Also, note your role in reinforcing bad behavior.
“Dogs and cats are very good at training us,” Collins warns. “If your dog or cat discovers that making a noise gets your attention, it can be a terrible, chronic problem — and you are reinforcing that behavior. Even scolding is attention. Quit paying attention when the cat meows or whines for food. The cat or dog becomes invisible when they start making noise.”
Problem No. 4: Excessive mouthing
Some dogs, particularly puppies, like to nip or gnaw on their people. Excessive mouthing ranks high among complaints from new owners, according to professional dog trainer Sarah Wilson, co-author of several training books, including “Childproofing Your Dog.” She notes that excessive mouthing among puppies often results from a lack of sleep.
“Puppies grow from birth size to what would be the equivalent of our 15-year-old body size in under a year; that’s an extraordinary amount of growth,” Wilson says, noting that some puppies need 18 hours of rest daily. “If they don’t get that, they can get cranky.”
Make sure your puppy gets an adequate amount of rest, coupled with plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. She also recommends that pet owners correct inappropriate behavior the minute it happens. When puppies get mouthy, she sends them away.
“That is a universal social species correction that dogs understand very well,” says Wilson, who created an online training forum called My Smart Puppy filled with free expert advice on training and dog care. “Look away, wait for them to process the change, then slowly re-engage.”
She will praise puppies for good behavior, and turn off like a faucet if they become mouthy once again. “I try to separate out the mouthing behavior so they get to see that’s not what I want,” Wilson says.
Problem No. 5: Pulling on the leash during walks
Strolls through the neighborhood quickly turn unpleasant when dogs pull on the leash. While this is a common complaint among dog owners, Wilson says that walking beside owners on a loose lead can be challenging for most dogs.
“Teaching a dog to walk with you on a loose lead is the most unnatural thing any dog will do,” she says. “It will never occur to them to line up and walk next to each you. They have no idea what you are talking about.”
To help dogs adjust to loose lead walking, Wilson introduces exercises that make her the center of attention. During a walk, she frequently changes course, pivoting in front of the dog and offering treats for yielding the space.
“If I step in front of them, they should back up and sit,” Wilson says. “I’m teaching them, ‘I need this space in front of your nose and I’ll use it frequently.’ That’s the most effective thing I have found in teaching a dog to walk on lead.”
Practice this method inside using chairs to create an obstacle course. Over time, your pooch should be able to walk without tugging the leash. Keep practicing and reinforce good behavior and come back next week for more tips.
— Morieka Johnson
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