By Dr. Becker
Conventional wisdom says a good way for parents to make their children conduct themselves properly is to make bad behavior "unprofitable." But pets are different from children; they don't process information the same way.
If you feel you've tried everything, but Fido and Fluffy's same old bad habits are the norm, you may be giving the wrong signals and actually encouraging the very behavior you're trying to deter.
Putting your finger on triggers that set off your pet's undesirable patterns, and positively reinforcing new behaviors with constructive guidance is a very effective way to train pets to live in family harmony – and avoid annoying neighbors and guests.
Jumping At Every Chance
Scenario: It's a foregone conclusion that when you walk in the door, your beloved pup is so overjoyed and hyper she jumps all over you, licking your face to show how much she missed you. When you tell her to get down and try to push her off, scratching her ears in the process, you're reinforcing her behavior. She wants interaction and you're giving it to her.
While you think you're saying no, from your dog's perspective, all your signals are saying you approve. Reacting by not reacting – turning your back, standing straight and ignoring her – indicates you don't welcome her exuberant jumping routine.
If you're afraid you'll hurt your pet's feelings, it won't. It simply trains her to know what behavior is acceptable and what is not.
Your Dog Is a Woofer When a Whisper Would Do
Scenario: Your routine is to release Fido into your fenced back yard every morning to do his business. But you can count on him barking loudly every time your neighbor leaves for work. If you call him in and feed him or pet him to distract him from barking, he thinks you're pleased with his behavior. A better idea would be to let him out half an hour earlier and bring him back in before the barking starts.
Another example might be when your mail carrier heads up the sidewalk to drop mail in the box, which invariably sets off boisterous "woofing" from your self-appointed guard dog. What to do? Try taking Fido to a back bedroom around the time of day you expect a mail drop-off. Turning on a fan or white noise machine might soften outside distractions that trigger the barking dog.
Either way, if someone shows up at the door unexpectedly, but your forever friend hasn't yet gotten the message not to bark and not to jump, by all means, take your pup to another room before opening the door.
Discourage Your Cat from Scratching the Wrong Surfaces
Scenario: Your kitten can't keep from scratching your bedroom drapes to ribbons. Obviously, speaking sternly and taking away her catnip won't take care of the problem.
A better way to deal with it is twofold: Not only should you take her out of your bedroom and shut the door, you should also provide her with something to scratch on, since this is a completely natural feline behavior.
If Fluffy shows a preference for scratching carpeting, give her a horizontal scratch surface with a similarly nubbly texture. If you catch her attacking the legs of your coffee table, get her a sturdy upright post so she can stand up and sharpen her claws to her heart's content.
Likewise, your kitty may have a penchant for chewing shoelaces and computer cables. This is another way your domesticated cat demonstrates the natural proclivity of cats in the wild. Keep cords and shoelaces out of her reach, but also provide a few gummy worm-type chew toys designed for felines.
Also, trimming your kitty's nails will reduce the damage she's able to inflict.
Whatever the scenario, the idea is to identify the triggers that set off the jumping, barking, scratching or other unacceptable habits, and avoid them whenever possible. That is the key to positive reinforcement. The result will find you frowning at your pet less often.
- Remove your pet's temptation to search and destroy by removing access. If Fido likes sniffing out – then tearing out – the garbage all over the garage, place the container someplace where he can't get to it.
- Handling your pet's unwanted jumping, digging or barking with loud words or roughness may not only reinforce the bad behavior, but put you in a bad light for future correction. Be calm and speak kindly. You want trust and respect to rule the day, not fear.
- Pets, like people, have certain windows of time when they're more receptive to directives. Rather than trying to teach your pup good behavior when he's stressed, hungry, tired out or in an unfamiliar environment, wait until he's calm to make a point. He'll be much more apt to listen and behave better next time a situation arises.
- Small treats are a good idea whenever your pet responds well to new behavior training; give them occasionally when good behavior becomes the new normal.
- Treats are great, but affection and sweet talk are essential to encourage desired behaviors in your best furry friend.
In Case It's Not a Habit, But Something Else…
Avoiding triggers and positive reinforcements aside, if your typically well-behaved pet suddenly turns rapscallion, he uncharacteristically does his business in the dining room or stops eating, he may not be simply acting out. He may be suffering from a health disorder. Rule this out first by calling your pet health practitioner to identify the problem and get expert advice.
If you find your pet's occasionally annoying behavior is morphing into a consistent behavior problem that you're not able to get a handle on with all the tips and tricks you've tried, consider hiring a professional. Find a positive trainer through a trusted referral, or if the behavior is causing you to consider rehoming your companion, find a veterinary behaviorist ASAP.