By Bonnie Markoff, DVM, ABVP
We have had several questions related to pet behavior on our KSBY Local Experts page. Pet owners have concerns about barking, biting, scratching, jumping, destructive behavior, animals getting into things, basic training and boundary training. Most of these problems stem from trying to bring an animal into our civilized homes. Our expectations may seem unreasonable to our canine & feline friends. Expecting your dog to stay away from yummy items in a trashcan is similar to asking Aunt Norma to not partake in the dinner you set before her.
When we bring animals into our homes, we must remember that barking, digging, searching out good food and being an intimate part of a group are all natural behaviors. Luckily, dogs and cats are very trainable and can learn to be civilized members of the team. If we start when they are young, training is usually quite easy. We set boundaries, remain consistent in enforcing these boundaries and gently provide alternatives. If you do not want adult animals on your couch or bed, you must not let them on the furniture when they are young. In fact, you must make it impossible for them to access the furniture until they learn the rules. This may mean confinement to a crate or other area of the house. Puppies who jump up need to learn that they will NEVER earn physical contact or praise when they are jumping up. They should be taught to sit and stay so that when they jump up we can tell them to sit and then give loads of praise for this alternative behavior.
Some behaviors that we find extremely disruptive are important survival instincts and can be very hard to eliminate from certain pets. Dogs who get into the trash or eat things off the counter, often never learn otherwise. These can be situations where we need to put things away immediately and keep our trashcans in places the dogs cannot access. Cats who urine mark territory, can be equally frustrating. Early spay and neuter may prevent this. Sometimes we can use medications or pheromones to prevent the behavior. Barking is sometimes extinguished by keeping dogs where they cannot see or hear any outside stimulus (i.e. indoors with the TV on.) Some dogs will require a bark collar. I do not like the use of shock collars, but find the citronella collars to be effective in many situations. Cats that scratch furniture can often be trained to stop if given acceptable alternatives.
Good training and behavior modification can be complicated. Programs should be individualized to each family and pet. Some dog trainers are very good with these types of interventions. In some cases, a veterinarian with a special interest in behavior will be required. At Animal Care Clinic, our Dr. Jennifer Evans can help with most behavior concerns. We can also provide referrals to good local dog trainers.