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Whose “PROBLEM” is it?

November 3, 2008

A friend and colleague writes:  “I need pet experts to offer me their top tips on treating the common problems of cats and dogs at home for a chapter in a ‘pet problems’ book being revised. Care to submit something?” Well shoot! Of course I do… I’m always willing to offer up my opinion, especially if it can help others. 

The following are some of the more common issues that come my way, regarding dog behavior:
  • House-training: Dogs come with a pre-wired, instinctual set of elimination behaviors. It’s up to us to teach them where and when to go in our human world. A few key things are:
  1. Consistency! Teaching them to “go potty” in a multitude of areas can be confusing. Stick with one general place (outside) and reward them for it! 
  2. Timing! Reward them when they go it the desired place!
  3. Refrain from punishment of any kind. This doesn’t teach your dog what you want – it only teaches them to be afraid of you and to not eliminate in front of you. Or if it’s after the fact, then they don’t put it together. You may end up punishing something completely unrelated – like coming to you.
  • “My dog if afraid of : Socialization is key. Whatever you want your dog doing as an adult, begin to get them used to it as a puppy – small, baby steps. New smells, sights, sounds, textures, and situations. This doesn’t mean you should be taking them to places that could cause harm, but you can still get them used to, and exposed to “novel” things when they’re young. 
  • Note: Dogs learn the same way we learn. So for adult dogs, even if you’ve missed the prime socialization period (6 – 13 weeks), you can still teach them to love or hate almost anything. Pairing something they already love (or hate) with anything else, will teach (condition) them to love or hate the “anything” else. Think Pavlov. 
  • “My dog chews up/destroys anything and everything.” Let’s recap what dogs are: predators, omnivores, scavengers. They chew for a variety of reasons. They’re also “individuals” in that they have their particulars about what they like to chew. Experiment with different “legal” chew items. Determine which one(s) your dog likes the best. Then, when s/he makes the right choice, reward extra for making that choice! 
  • “My dog barks all the time!” Okay, first off they’re dogs. Remember “Old MacDonald”? Dogs bark for a variety of reasons, just like we humans talk/yell/scream (dare I say whisper) for a variety of reasons… First determine “why” your dog is barking, then figure out what to do about it. Fear and separation anxiety is a completely different path of learning than play or attention seeking, as well as alert/predatory/play/territory barking. In a very tiny nutshell: 
  1. Fear-based: longer process to teach your dog that being alone is “fun”, and that they can trust it’s going to be okay. Be boring coming and going, short absences working up to longer periods, exercise beforehand so they’re tired and want to rest, pet sitters, day care, play-dates, enrichment. 
  2. Boredom: Enrichment! Give them something to do! Exercise them so they’re tired. 
  3. Attention seeking: Ask them to do something else. Interactive games (enrichment). Reward when they’re quiet! Time-out if necessary. 
  4. Alert!: If there is a burglar on the premises you better thank them for doing their job! If it’s a friend visiting, or the delivery person, thank your dog for letting you know, then ask them for another behavior (instead of continuous barking). Reward for quiet, time-out for making the wrong choice. 
I think one of the more important steps any dog owner should take is learning what they can about dogs in general. Know your animal! What makes them dogs? Why do they do what they do? Understanding them better can help set yourself and the dog up for success, while avoiding those “problems” people complain about. 

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