Shelters are often the last stop for naughty dogs and cats.
But it’s easy to train an animal to be its people-pleasing best, and as a pet owner, it’s your responsibility.By Ruthanne Johnson We love our pets. We do. But think back to the time your furry friend ripped apart your shoes. Or your cat gouged claw marks in the couch. Along with the love they give, our pets can test our patience, right? Behavioral issues are actually among the top 10 reasons animals are relinquished to shelters, and some 6 to 8 million dogs and cats enter shelters every year. Not all hope is lost, however, for even the most challenging pets. Most times they’re just doing what nature intended—barking, scratching, chewing and going potty. It’s just up to us to kindly teach them our house rules. But first you need to understand the reasons behind their behavior, says Helena Kokes, a behavior consultant with the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. The solution could be as simple as redirecting your dog’s barking or enticing your cat to use a scratching post. Other behaviors may be more complex and need the help of an animal behavior specialist—or a veterinarian, if it’s medically related. We asked the experts to weigh in on a few of the most common pet behavioral problems.
Here Kitty, Kitty, KittyYou’ve probably heard the expression, “It’s like herding cats.” While it’s true that cats do pretty much whatever they want whenever they want, they’re not as hard to train as you think. Cats have learned to potty in toilets, walk on leashes and jump through hoops. Just look at YouTube if you doubt that. But we have to give cats reasons to do what we want. We have to entice, rather than demand, and make them think it’s what they want.
Litter Box AvoidanceReasons for behavior: Cats are naturally attracted to soft, sandy substrates for elimination, so the good news is there’s no need for house-training. But cats have bathroom preferences just like humans. Who’d want to potty in front of everyone or walk up three flights of stairs to do their business? And who hasn’t avoided a dirty toilet? “The litter box could be in the wrong location, the wrong kind of box, a dirty box or the wrong type of litter,” Kokes says. A new companion pet, health issues or changes in your routine can even factor in. Several of Kokes’ clients had cats that actually stopped using their litter box after being spooked by the washing machine’s spin cycle (their litter box was in the laundry room). Solutions: “Cats like large litter boxes where they feel comfortable,” says animal behaviorist Lindsay Wood, who worked for eight years with the Humane Society of Boulder Valley before going to the Lynchburg Humane Society in Virginia. The box should be in a low-traffic, easily accessible location, she says, especially for geriatric or arthritic cats. To find your cat’s litter preference, Kokes suggests filling side-by-side litter boxes with different options. ”They’ll let you know which one they like.” Litter boxes should be cleaned at least once a day, and multi-cat households should have one litter box for every cat in the house—and then one extra. If your cat suddenly stops using the litter box, it’s time to take it for a checkup.
ScratchingReason: Cats scratch to sharpen their claws, shed their nails’ outer sheath, get a good stretch, greet someone or mark their territory. They also do it because it feels good. “It’s something they need to do,” Wood says. Destructive scratching can be solved by providing “legal” opportunities. You just have to tap into your cat’s preferences to get it to use those surfaces. Solution: Some cats prefer vertical surfaces like scratching posts. Others are drawn to horizontal things such as corrugated cardboard. Because cats are social, they prefer high-traffic areas. “That’s why couches are a huge target,” Kokes says. “They’re tall and sturdy and where people typically hang out.” Stability and texture are also key. There’s carpet, sisal rope and even wood. Try different options to see what they like, Kokes suggests. Cat towers and posts provide a perch for pets that like to climb. To prevent scratching on “illegal” surfaces, try using double-sided sticky tape. Place a scratching post or horizontal scratching surface next to the illegal surface and rub catnip on it. You can also brush or play with the cat near the new scratching area as inspiration, or even mimic the act of scratching as an example.
Counter SurfingReason: Cats are predators and incredibly agile. They also love to explore. “So it’s normal for them to get up on things, under things, behind things and to explore every square inch of their space,” Kokes says. Some cats climb to get closer to their humans. Others like to find high perches where they can oversee. Or they could be scrounging for food. Solution: For social cats, Kokes suggests an elevated lounging area near the activity, like a cat tower. She set up a kitchen stool for her cat where it’s easy to dole out treats. “If he goes on the kitchen counter, I encourage him back to the stool and then give him rewards,” she says. Another option is wall shelves that allow cats to climb and lounge. “Many sold online are very artful, and they provide enrichment for the cat,” Wood says. You can install several that lead stair-like up to a comfy cat perch. Lounging spots that receive sun, like window shelves, are great attractants. To deter crumb seekers, prepare the cat’s food on the floor, rather than the kitchen counter. Clean counters also help reduce temptation.
Who's A Good Doggy?
Bow-Wow Boo-BoosDogs are people pleasers. That’s what we love about them. They’re loyal and fun and have a way of making us feel safe and loved. But they can be a handful, especially teething puppies, and adults who haven’t been properly trained. Neighbors quickly tire of constant barking, and who wants to come home to a house smelling of dog pee? Good thing dogs are so trainable, even older ones.
House SoilingReason: Dogs don’t like to potty where they eat or sleep. “Basically, in their core living space,” Kokes says. But the rest of the house is their potty oyster, if they haven’t been properly house-trained. Sometimes, accidents happen because they just can’t hold it as long as we expect. If house soiling is something new, it could be medically related and a checkup is in order. Overly anxious dogs will also soil when they’re stressed. Solution: If you work long days, consider hiring a dog walker or taking your pet to doggy daycare. If the house soiling is occurring when you’re there, start by keeping your pet close at all times. Use a crate or leash to limit free wandering. Take them outside on a schedule: after waking up, eating and playing. “When they eliminate outside, reward them right away with a treat,” Kokes says. An animal behaviorist can help with anxiety-driven house soiling.
The Big ChewReason: Chewing is an exploratory behavior, especially for puppies and young dogs. Certain breeds such as Labs and other retrievers love to grab things in their mouths. “It’s part of a dog’s nature to chew,” Kokes says. “Basically, it’s a calming activity that just feels good.” Dogs also chew to relieve boredom and stress if they’re left alone for too long, or not getting enough stimulation. Solution: “Management is important with dog chewing,” Wood says. “You want to give them access to things that are OK to chew and limit access to items you don’t want them to chew.” Bully sticks, Kongs (made by a Colorado company) and safe rawhides are good options. If they don’t seem interested, stuff the toy with treats or spread a little peanut butter on the side. “Supervise your dog until you’ve redirected their chewing to approved items, or put them and the chew toy in a limited space, like a bathroom or kennel.”
Sir Barks-a-LotReason: Barking is a dog’s vocal form of communicating. Different barks serve different functions. “The barking could be in greeting,” Wood says, “or sounding the alarm.” It could indicate distress or alert you to something they want, like breakfast or play. It can also be from anxiety, boredom or social isolation. “Dogs without the companionship of people or another animal during the day can be a big reason for barking,” Kokes says. Solution: For dogs who bark at every little noise or person walking by, set up the environment so they don’t see passersby. Close the blinds and play the radio or some other white noise to mask outside sounds. “You can also teach them to be quiet on cue,” Wood says. When they bark a couple of times, stand beside them and say “quiet” in a firm voice, but don’t yell. “After they’re quiet, give them a treat.” And make it a good treat, too, so it’ll be worth more to them than barking. Providing dogs with stimulation, like a chew toy or playtime, can help with boredom and anxiety barking. And a tired dog is a quiet dog, so make sure your dog gets plenty of daily exercise. For neurotic barking, consult a behaviorist.
Ruthanne Johnson is staff writer for All Animals, published by the Humane Society of the United States.