How To Teach Good Pet Habits

By Dr. Lindsay Lane, Managing Veterinarian

It’s National Train Your Dog month, so what better time to learn how to teach your furry friend to be on their best behavior!

Behavior is quite the loaded topic and we can discuss all matters of body language, vocalization and all sorts of different training techniques. However, in veterinary medicine behavior is often used to primarily discuss behavioral problems unfortunately and not necessarily the “norm”. So I’d like to start our discussion with a few helpful training tips, as our goal is always to avoid these problems before they start!

I sum a lot of my training “techniques” into a simple format; if you want to see it again, reward it! If you don’t want to see it again, don’t reward it! Easy enough, right? Wrong! If we were to use this simple reminder, we could stop so many unwanted behaviors without yelling, shock collars, pulling and just getting angry! But we need to start early, and be consistent! Our pets after all do not speak English. They don’t understand our ramblings when we get frustrated. I imagine us sounding like the teacher on Charlie Brown to them! They simply respond to our body language and may hide or cower when we are upset, merely confused by the loud angry noises we emit or the tense body language we display.

Let’s use a common example of our simple training mantra; the cat who wakes you up at 3am to have a midnight snack. He yowls and yowls, walks on you, purrs IN your face until you can’t stand it anymore and you get up to give them a handful of something delicious just to shut them up so you might be able to go back to sleep. What just happened here? Your cat was just rewarded for being the most irritating creature on the planet! Here is why the training technique of ‘not rewarding the unwanted behavior’ can be difficult, as it can take quite some time to sink in to your pets. This cat will yowl and yowl… and yowl some more. You must be strong! Just don’t get up! It may take more time than it does to get up and give him food to shut up, but in the long run, you’ll have uninterrupted nights of sleep by not rewarding his yowling in the beginning! It involves no yelling or scaring your cat, or throwing anything at them. You just simply have to wait it out! Again, it might take a little longer, but no aversive tactics are used and the relationship with your cat will still be a pleasant one!

Now let’s discuss the ‘reward the wanted behavior’. I’ll ask you this, would you work for free? No? Then why expect your pet to do so when you ask them for something? Keep in mind their reward doesn’t have to be some grand gesture; they’ll still work for a loving pat on the head, depending on the situation of course. Reward based training does not mean treat training, let’s first debunk that thought!  Reward based training is meant to instill confidence in your pet that essentially all good things come from you and when you ask them to do something, they can trust good things will come. The difficult thing that can occur here is finding out what makes your pet “tick” or what they will work for! For some pets it is food, others it can be attention or a toy! Some situations and scenarios might require a high priority item (for example if you are out and about with lots of distractions, people, animals etc vs. just at home in their normal/typical surroundings) and these types of rewards should be reserved for just those scenarios.

For now, we will wrap up this discussion with the thought that we as veterinarians want to improve the relationship between you and your pet by helping you understand their behavior and ultimately how to effectively and humanely communicate! You will hear and see so many different training techniques, but please know you can discuss with your veterinarian what might be the best approach of training for you and your pet.

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