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Archive for Monday, July 23, 2012

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Breaking bad pet habits

July 23, 2012

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Ajax, a 2-year-old golden retriever, responds to a “sit” command as he’s offered a treat on New York’s Upper West Side in this April 1, 2007, file photo.  Positive training can help a dog change an undesirable behavior, such as jumping, to a preferred behavior, such as sitting.

Ajax, a 2-year-old golden retriever, responds to a “sit” command as he’s offered a treat on New York’s Upper West Side in this April 1, 2007, file photo. Positive training can help a dog change an undesirable behavior, such as jumping, to a preferred behavior, such as sitting.

When Tanya Walsh brought home her Great Pyrenees puppy, she was surprised at how easily she was house trained and how well the puppy got along with her four cats.

“In a lot of ways, she was a dream puppy,” Walsh said.

But there was one obstacle Walsh wasn’t sure how to overcome: Her puppy, Beckett, was terrified of the car. Knowing she wanted to seek professional help training her puppy, Walsh took her vet’s advice and contacted Wagmore Canine Enrichment.

The trainers at Wagmore helped Walsh and Beckett master the basics of obedience — how to sit, stay and walk on a leash. But they also helped Walsh with the biggest behavioral problem she faced with Beckett.

“She just would not get in the car,” Walsh said.

Using positive training techniques, Walsh and her trainers helped Beckett become comfortable with the car by first putting treats in the driveway and letting the puppy become familiar with the environment on her own terms.

Slowly they worked up to putting treats on the floor of the car, then on the seats in the car. After a couple of months Beckett was jumping in the vehicle with no signs of fear.

Dog problems

While fear of cars is a behavioral problem that might only affect some dogs, most pets form other habits, such as chewing, scratching, digging or jumping. These behaviors can frustrate owners, but the right training and environment can often alleviate these problems.

One of the most common problems pet owners face with dogs is jumping on people. This is especially true with puppies.

“Jumping is commonly reinforced by owners,” said Jerri Johnson, a dog trainer, animal behavior expert and CPDT-KA with Wagmore Canine Enrichment.

When puppies jump, people usually don’t mind because they are 0small. In fact, humans reinforce the behavior by thinking it’s cute and reaching down to pet the puppy. Then as the dog grows older and bigger, jumping becomes a problem.

“It’s not a problem when they’re puppies,” Johnson said. “We don’t realize we’re doing so, but it’s reinforcing to the puppy.”

The most important part of changing unwanted behavior is to reward alternate behavior, Johnson said.

For example, with jumping, the owner should teach the dog to sit instead. If the dog jumps, the owner should turn away and not give it attention until it calms down. Then when the dog is calm and sitting, praise it.

“Any behavior that is reinforced is more likely to be repeated,” Johnson said. “If we continually reinforce good behaviors, those behaviors are more likely to repeat themselves.”

With other problems such as chewing and digging, the cause can often be boredom, said Matthew Coles, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with the Animal Hospital of Lawrence.

“If our lives get kind of busy and we’re not taking them on as many walks, perhaps, or not playing with them as much, they will look for other things to do,” Coles said.

Dogs with a lot of energy can benefit from doggy day care or long runs in the mornings and evenings.

“It really helps to keep them active,” Coles said. “Tired dogs tend to have fewer behavioral problems.”

Chewing is most prevalent when puppies are young and teething, but it is a natural behavior for dogs and something they don’t grow out of, Johnson said. The best thing to do is have plenty of chew toys, and redirect the dog’s chewing to appropriate items.

“Humans tend to think that dogs think like we do,” Johnson said. “We tend to want to believe that dogs do things out of resentment or jealousy or things dogs aren’t even capable of, instead of really looking at the dog’s behavior and thinking in terms of how dogs think and why they are doing this or that.”

Cat problems

With cats, a common problem is urinating outside the litter box. While there can be medical reasons associated with urinary problems, causes can also be behavioral, Coles said.

Some cats become bored with their environments, which causes stress and anxiety. Therefore, it is important to enrich the cat’s environment by giving it things to climb, scratching posts and fostering the cat’s hunting instincts by hiding its food. Ultimately, a cat’s mind needs to be stimulated, just as a dog’s does.

“The biggest challenge is getting people to realize that a cat just sitting inside day after day, year after year really isn’t enjoyable,” Coles said. “Giving the cat things to do keeps the cat happy, and happier cats have fewer urinary issues.”

Ultimately, providing a stimulating and engaging environment, combined with positive training techniques result in happy and well-behaved pets, Johnson said. Positive training methods don’t involve punishment but instead create a positive association and bond between owner and pet.

“I can’t be a bigger advocate for positive training,” Walsh said. “It just works.”

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