Training and Animal Behavior

Living with animals can be a challenging undertaking. They speak a different language and have different goals and priorities than we often do. Their priority might be food and exploration while ours may be keeping the house in order and protecting family and visitors from injury and chaos. Why, then do we choose to have animals in our homes? We gain so much from their presence in our lives. We can learn a new language, open our perspectives and view of the world, and share compassion and understanding with a species other than our own. And it is just plain fun.

Part of "training" animals is first understanding their normal behaviors and how to communicate with them. This can vary by species, breed and certainly by individual. For instance, cats can become anxious and threatened by things that might not bother a dog at all. Small cats are a prey species as well as a predator, so they look at their world from both perspectives - survival and hunting. Dogs have been bred to include such a variety of characteristics that they can be difficult to pigeonhole. It is useful to think of them in terms of breed categories or "jobs". Terriers are bred for different traits than retrievers or shepherds. An energetic breed like a labrador needs to run some of that off before he can even think of trying to behave. That energy has to go somewhere, and if it is not given a positive outlet like ball chasing or other active play, it will present itself in more destructive ways. Each species and breed comes with it's own challenges and useful characteristics depending on your point of view. Working with these basic inborn qualities can help us to live with our individual animal companions, even better, considering these qualities before buying or adopting a pet can make a huge difference for the whole family.

Some aspects of training are universal, such as clear instructions -short commands, not long-winded diatribes- and consistent expectations. You can't allow begging from the table one day and get upset about it the next. Set clear expectations and be sure the whole family sticks with them.

Set them up for success - puppy and cat proof by not leaving valuable items (including leather shoes, felt toys and enticing chocolate cakes) unattended. Use crates when not under strict observation until they have been proven trustworthy. For dogs, this can be well into their second year or even lifelong if the crate becomes a comfortable den and safe place for them. Cats, especially kittens, should have a special room where they cannot harm anything, or themselves, when they are left alone until they can be trusted in the entire house.

Every opportunity to behave in an unacceptable manner reinforces that behavior, just as every positive behavior can be rewarded and encouraged to build acceptable habits. Research over the past 10-15 years has found that positive reinforcement with treats, praise and enjoyable consequences, is a much more successful and long-lasting training method than punishment based training which can build fear and aggression in some animals.

Some behavior problems or changes in behavior, such as housesoiling or anxiety, may indicate a health problem. A veterinary examination can help with medical and some behavioral issues.