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Barking, jumping, broken blinds, and chewed shoes can be incredibly frustrating for pet parents. You want to put a stop to undesirable behaviors, but not in a way that harms your relationship with your pet.
The good news is, when our pets feel connected to us, they usually aim to please. The key to effective training lies in understanding what motivates our furry friends. With positive reinforcement, it’s easier than you think to teach old dogs (and even cats!) new tricks.
When we are annoyed by our pet’s destructive behavior, it can be tempting to think of training as an opportunity to assert dominance. This would make sense if your pet was acting deliberately to challenge your authority or misbehaving out of spite but this is highly unlikely.
When you view bad behavior as the result of a natural instinct that hasn’t been properly redirected, you can understand how shouting, physical punishment, and intimidation can be very confusing for your pet. These methods of correction are more likely to make your pet mistrustful of you than they are to alter behaviors.
Positive training focuses on rewarding desirable behaviors to create a lasting association in your pet’s mind. By marking good behavior with praise and treats and finding appropriate outlets for bothersome behavior, the process of training your pet can actually bring you closer together.
The most obvious reward is a treat. While many pet parents will tell you that their dog will sit and stay for almost any food item (even pieces of their everyday kibble), certain high-energy breeds may prize a favorite toy over a snack.
Cats, in particular, may be hard to motivate with familiar food. Introducing bits of chicken, turkey, or tuna may be the best way to get their full attention during a training session.
Use what you know about your pet as an individual to choose the training treat that is right for them. It’s ideal to have a few options, ranked in order of preference, so you have some negotiating power when asking your pet to learn a more difficult skill.
Clicker training has increased in popularity over the last several years. The theory behind it is rooted in operant conditioning – your pet successfully carries out a command, and they immediately hear a click and receive a treat. Over time, your dog comes to associate hearing the click and getting a treat to an extent that the click becomes its own reward.
Clicker training is a convenient way to give your pet consistent feedback, but pet parents can substitute any cue they like, a bell, the sounds of their favorite toy, or even a classic “good boy.”
Whatever sound you choose, timing is a critical factor. When your pet responds to a command, offer the cue immediately. Praising your pet for something they did earlier in the day will only lead to confusion.
Once your pet has mastered a command, it’s a good idea to make rewards less predictable.
If your dog has come to expect a snack every time he sits, you may find yourself in a dilemma if you need his attention and have no treats on hand.
Intermittent reinforcement is a training technique that alternates highly desirable rewards with lesser ones (like verbal praise) at random. While this may seem like a recipe for frustration, science has proven that both pets and people are more likely to continue to engage in new behaviors when the rewards are unpredictable.
It’s important to remember that our pets don’t act out of malice. Undesirable behaviors are almost always the product of fear, anxiety, or excess energy that needs to be properly channeled.
Think about the behavior from your pet’s point of view. A dog who repeatedly chews cords or furniture may not have the right toys. A cat who is always sneaking onto the kitchen counter may be asking for a cat tree that allows her to observe from on high.
When you view bad behavior as an expression of unmet needs, you can begin to work with your pet to find solutions.
Learning new skills should be enjoyable for you and your furbaby, but change doesn’t happen all at once.
Keep training sessions short, especially in the beginning. If your pet starts to seem distracted, call it a day rather than pushing through. Feelings of frustration will make them want to avoid sessions and hurt your progress.
Care for your pet’s physical health with quality food, exercise, and – take care of their social health with positive training techniques. With patience and practice, you and your furbaby will make an unstoppable team.