Six Steps To A (Mostly) Perfect Pet

By Se Reed

Poems have been written of dogs’ boundless loyalty and cats’ endearing curiosity. Less celebrated are the behind-the-scenes behaviors that often leave pet owners with hours of frustration, partially digested shoes and smelly little gifts left in inopportune places.

Luckily, destructive behaviors like chewing and marking don?t have to be part of the pet package.
“Dogs don’t really chew in the wild,” says Paul Yevilov of K-9 City. “Most of the time, it can be attributed to other things, including a learned behavior.”

In order to help pet owners free themselves and their pets of negative behaviors or avoid them altogether, we asked seven professional animal trainers what they think are some of the most important things pet owners should know about their pets.

The results? Six simple steps that can help promote the perfect pet-human relationship (no matter what degree of perfection you?re after).

Step One: Pets Aren’t People

Dogs are canines, cats are felines and people are humans. Sounds simple, right? But before you skip to Step Two, ask yourself a few questions.

Do you tell your pet the reasons for your rules? Example: “You can’t poop on the rug because the carpet cleaner will dissolve the dye.”

Do you use polite social conventions and/or complete sentences when disciplining your pet? Example: “Would you please stop scratching the brand-new couch?”

Do you occasionally give the rules a break? Example: Allowing your pet to jump on your bed/counter/neighbor because they have been extra good lately.

Do you immediately respond to your pet’s requests for attention? Example: Feeding your pet when he tells you he’s hungry, whether or not it’s close to feeding time.

If you replied yes to any of these (and likely, even if you didn’t) you’re falling prey to one of the most common mistakes pet owners make: treating pets like people.

“People use human psychology on a canine and it doesn’t work,” says Theresa Botello from Brat Dog. “People forget that they’re a whole other species. You can’t deal with them like a human.”

Of course, people have been assigning human characteristics to non-human things for thousands of years, from Aesop’s talking animals to the man on the moon. And if it’s so easy for us to see smiley faces on a giant rock thousands of miles away, is it really any wonder that we attribute human traits to our pets, who are so full of movement and life?

The simple truth, however, is that pets are hard-wired differently than humans are, no matter how much it looks like they understand you.

Step Two: Don’t Change The Rules

To your pet, there is no such thing as situational behavior. They cannot tell the difference between the couch when you’re watching TV in your sweatpants and the couch when you’re entertaining your in-laws. So if you ask them to snuggle up when you?re in sweats, they will assume they’re welcome to snuggle everyone who sits on the couch, including your mother-in-law and her new silk blouse.

“You don’t tell your kids ‘You’ve been good, go ahead and knock off that convenience store,'” Botello says. “It’s the same with dogs. You can’t say ‘You’ve been good not jumping up on the couch, now go ahead and jump on the couch.'”

Cats need consistency too, according to Mollie Hogan of Cat Business (see listing on page 42). In fact, consistency was cited by all of our experts as the most important aspect of working with pets, whether you’re trying to keep your dog off the couch or teach your cat to roll over.

“The biggest problem with pet owners is that they give mixed signals,” says Tim Welsh of Redefined Dog Training (see listing on page 44). “They don’t like a behavior, but they think it’s cute, or they give up trying to enforce it.”

Consistent boundaries can help your pet understand what you want and need from them. To help establish some ground rules, consider taking a basic obedience class or setting aside some time to work on commands with your pet. Even if you don’t care if your dog can walk on its hind legs or if your cat can use the toilet instead of a litter box (they can! See tip on page 24), training will strengthen your bond with your pet, which will come in handy the next time you go to the vet (or the next time your mother-in-law comes over).

Step Three: You’re the Boss

Like humans, animals retain the psychological inclinations of their ancestors. Even after hundreds of years of domestication, dogs still maintain the pack-animal mentality. Cats, while not as pack-oriented as dogs, often form cooperative colonies. But both packs and colonies share one overriding characteristic: There is only one alpha. That means much of your interaction with your pet boils down to just one question: Who is the alpha in your pack?

At first, alpha status may seem to be an inconsequential notion. But all of our experts agree that it is at the root of the most common pet behavior problems, including pulling on the leash, jumping up on people and excessive barking or meowing.

“Most dogs don’t want to be the leader,” says Tracy Thomson of Bark Busters (see listing on page 41), “but they’ll take over the role if they don’t see that in you.”

When a dog is pulling his owner by the leash, the dog is, quite literally, leading the pack. When pets jump up on new people, they are letting the newcomers know that they are in the pet’s domain. And when barking or meowing excessively, pets are demanding their owners pay attention to them, and if they make enough noise, they generally get it, further reinforcing their alpha status.

“Psychologically, they are demonstrating that they are number one,” Yevilov says.

Of course, in mild doses, many pet owners don?t mind all that much if their dog runs ahead, or if their cat ambushes their houseguests. But since the behaviors are rooted in the pets, assumption of alpha status, problems begin to arise when you, the real alpha, assert your alpha status.

As we learned in Step Two, lack of consistency in the rules means your pet won’t understand the rules. Similarly, lack of consistency in your roles means your pet won’t understand those either.

“Destructive behaviors, digging, barking, chewing, are all stuff the dog does to entertain itself when he doesn’t know what his job is or what he’s supposed to do,” Welsh explains.

Even some pet behaviors that can seem positive are alpha-status tests, such as when your cat sits on your keyboard while you type or your dog interrupts your movie for some slobbery kisses.

“We think it’s cute because we think they’re seeking our affections out of love,” Botello says, “but really, it’s a demonstration of control.”

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, the more ways you demonstrate your dominance, the more confident your pet will become (see “Demonstrate Your Dominance”).

“It’s the way you live with them everyday,” Botello stresses, “Otherwise, it’s as if we’re saying ‘Why don’t you be a human for a while and I’ll get back to you on that dog thing.’ Affection, play, walks, feeding, treats…they all need to be on your terms.”

Step Four: Interspecies Communication

Part of Step One is accepting that your pet doesn’t speak English. But if you can’t explain to your pet what you want them to do or not do, how can you get them to do-or-not-do it?

According to Thomson, one of the most successful approaches to interspecies communication comes through three main vocal tones that animals can consistently interpret correctly:

Regular tone: A normal voice, used to give commands and for everyday interaction.
Correction tone: A low and staccato tone, approximating a growl, used to correct negative behaviors at the moment they happen.
Praise tone: A light tone, higher in pitch than the regular tone, used to reward positive behavior and express affection.

“The tone you use is much more important than the words you use,” says Thomson.

The physical signals you project are also important. Pets may not possess verbal communication skills, but they are fluent in body language.

“Body language is the dog’s main form of communication,” explains Thomson. “They look at your body language to see what you?re thinking.”

The same is true for cats.

“Their senses are so much more enhanced than ours, they can really pick up on the slightest movement,” Hogan says. That sensitivity means that your pet can easily learn to associate a hand cue with a particular behavior.

The words you use are also important. Pets can recognize verbal commands, but since people often talk around and to their pets, it’s important to make a distinction between everyday conversation and a command. Some trainers recommend forgoing English altogether, instead substituting a seldom-used foreign word or even making up a word from a random syllable or two.

For the best of both worlds, consistently pair a simple hand cue with a unique, simple command. That way, your pet can understand your command even if they look away or if there is a lot of background noise. Whatever command you choose, the key to is to keep it simple.

Step Five: What?s Their Motivation?

“Undoing an ingrained behavior in an older dog is difficult,” says Debbie Kendrick of Animal Behavior College, “but teaching a new behavior is just as easy as with a young dog.”

In other words, yes, you can teach old dogs new tricks. You can also teach a terrier to herd like a shepard or a poodle to sit like a bulldog. But though both age and breed play a role in determining an animal’s natural inclination to behave in a certain way, they are not a determining factor.

“Each has a different disposition and learns at different rates,” says Mary Thompson of Gold Touch Dog Training, “but it always goes back to being consistent.”

Far more important than assessing your pet’s natural talent is figuring out his motivation for obeying your commands. According to Welsh, animals will do things for only two reasons.

“One, because you tell him to,” he explains. “Two, because he’s going to get something.”

While the first reason is ideal, the second is more realistic, but figuring out what your pet wants can be a challenge.

“What will work with one dog will not necessarily work effectively with another,” Kendrick says. “Some dogs are people-driven. They want to be petted and touched and loved, through physical contact or even verbal contact. Some dogs are prey-driven. They love their toys and their ties and they like interaction.”

The reward you provide for a job well done should be based along similar lines. If your pet revels in your brushing sessions, he might be happy with a few ear scratches as praise. If romping in water is your pet?s idea of heaven, following up with a session in the sprinklers might be enough.

“Ideally, attention from the owner is the best reward,” Welsh says.

To motivate cats, Hogan says, you always use food. Dogs are motivated by food as well, but since you won’t always have a treat on you, some trainers recommend not using food as a training reward. For others, it?s on a case-by-case basis.

“Initially, I think training needs to use what motivates the dog most,” Kendrick says.

And what about negative motivation?

“The consequences need to be just great enough to enforce the command,? Welsh explains. ?If you tell the dog to go lie down on its bed and it doesn’t go, get up and take the dog to the bed. The idea is to get the dog to do what you want by demonstrating that you have the power to make them do it.”

All of our experts agree that pet owners should not use physical or verbal negative reinforcement beyond a correcting command to startle them out of the unwanted behavior or physically removing them from the problem. Animals respond to physical force and loud yelling with increased fear and stress levels, which often result in more unwanted behavior. This is especially true with cats.

“Even if a cat is aggressive, you can’t use much negative reinforcement,” says Hogan. ?They?ll become afraid of you much more quickly than a dog would.”

To curb a negative behavior, such as sleeping on the couch, it’s most effective to reward the pet when it demonstrates the corresponding positive behavior, such as sleeping on their pet bed.
No matter what your training goals are for your pet, random positive reinforcement will keep the rewards from being predictable, which will help keep your pet motivated.

Step Six: Pay Attention!

Step Six might be the simplest step, but it?s also the most important: Pay attention to your pet.
In addition to the enjoyment you?ll get out of a strengthened bond and a happier pet, taking 10 minutes a day to play with your cat and some string can mean the difference between your shoe and a litter box. The same is true for dogs (although they will probably need a little more string).