January was national train your dog month, and I wish I wrote this at the appropriate time. February is national pet dental health month, but I’d rather talk about training tips. In respect for this month’s theme, brush your pet’s teeth! Dry food is not good for teeth – that’s a myth! There are so many great products out there for dental health, including Dr. Mercola’s dental gel and chews. Check them out. That’s my snippet about national pet dental health month (in a way, you got a two-fer with this one)
I have worked in the pet industry for thirteen years in a variety of occupations including animal hospitals, dog daycares, retail, and grooming facilities. There are different schools of thought when it comes to training, which makes sense because we are all different (animals included) and something that works for me may not necessarily work for you. I can only speak to what I have found successful when communicating with dogs and cats. Consider this the “goal setting” article for your pets, as a follow up from January’s tips for yourself. Just like us, our pets are creatures of habit. If your pet has a habit or behaviors that you wish to alter, I hope these tips will help you do just that.
Dogs are pack animals, and cats tend to be solitary animals, but can and do live in colonies, peacefully. When we adopt or care for them, they look to us to be the pack leader. For me, being a pack leader, or leader of any situation means guidance. Our pets are not objects that we just own, but rather living beings under our care and guidance. Socialization as puppies is important for dogs to learn how to communicate with each other and for future social settings as adults. As humans, it’s our first instinct to back away when our dogs greet each other, but trainers have explained to me that this can be confusing to some dogs because they expect us to lead. If a dog is unsure, nervous or overwhelmed, then miscommunication can result in scuffles. If you stay calm and stay in the group at first, then your dog will follow suit. They feed off our emotions and energy levels. This also applies to one-on-one meetings on or off leash (but always ask first when approaching another dog, if it is okay to do so). I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where we shorten the leash during an initial meeting, but that tension communicates to your dog that there is something to be alert about, and potentially something bad.
Similarly, if a dog has a high energy level and pulls you up to another dog, that can also be a red flag that may cause the other dog to become defensive. Showing your dog what you expect of them when walking, helps you maintain that calm demeanor during encounters with other dogs. There are harnesses and collars designed for dogs who pull, and aid in training. I believe in rewarding good behavior, such as sitting, walking right next to you with a loose leash, and waiting to go through doors after you. A great way to start working toward these behaviors is to start asking your pup to sit periodically during walks, while you wait to cross the street, if another dog is approaching, and before walking through doorways. This also stimulates them mentally. It keeps them on the toes about paying attention and listening to you when you speak.
From there, you can work up to any other behaviors or tasks you’d like to teach them. You can also practice sitting until you call them from different distances. This way, if you have a dog that barks when someone is at the door you can work on keeping them focused on you, while remaining calm and sitting quietly. Another tool to use for dogs who get excited in certain situations is something that will snap their attention back to you. For some, this can be a clicker, a spray bottle with water in it, or an aerosol can that sprays a puff of air. I have a habit of making random noises with my voice. I usually switch between “shh,” “ahh,” and “na na na” type of sounds. These techniques help bring their attention back to the task at hand, without falling into a distraction.
Just like us, dogs need consistency and routine. Cats too. My cat, Simon, learned “sit” when he was still very young. He’s seven years old now, and still sits when he is waiting for a treat, or his food. He can’t sit still for very long, but he’s got it down. He also has an exercise wheel that he learned to run on by himself within a month of purchasing it. I know how crazy I sound when I tell people how smart Simon is, but he loves learning new tasks. As long as we stick with the same routine, our dogs (and cats) will follow along. The brain is a muscle, so the more we exercise it, the stronger it becomes. Furthermore, with proper nourishment through quality foods can assist in that growth. On the other hand, if our pets have a sensitivity to something, then it’s possible it may affect their behavior. If you think your dog or cat is having symptoms of intolerance to something, we test for over three hundred food and environmental factors with just a simple hair sample.
Of course, reach out to your local trainers if you need assistance with training and behavioral issues. Like I mentioned before, different techniques work for each of us differently. You may find that another way of training fits you and your dog better than what I’ve discussed here. Changing our habits takes time and patience. Let’s set them up for success!