Training is Important for Our Pets Around the Home
July 30, 2018
Pets are all around us; underfoot, beside us, and on us! On the floor, bed, couch, or counter, their close presence at home can be difficult if basic training is not attended to—limits need to be gently set for all home behaviours. For dogs, basic obedience should be emphasized, as this is the foundation upon which other successful strategies build. There are many excellent training resources available, and local classes for obedience or more advanced work are typically available. Please note, this brief article is not meant to provide advice that applies to your pet specifically.
Simple strategies can change the home from a picture of disharmony and confusion to a quiet and safe environment for all. Though simple positive reinforcement steps can make a lot of difference, veterinary or behaviourist assistance is sometimes needed. Do not be afraid to raise behaviour issues with your veterinarian. Good pet health encompasses both physical and mental health. Sometimes, a referral to a behaviour specialist or trainer is required—most behaviour concerns are not a quick fix. Human-animal bonds can be broken if serious misbehaviours continue, so seek help sooner than later.
Some common concerns clients discuss with their veterinarians include:
Dogs that jump up on you or your guests can be an annoyance for all and lead to scratches or cause seniors, toddlers, or those with balance issues to fall. Receiving attention, both positive and negative cues, equals success for exuberant dogs. Different strategies can be attempted to mitigate undesired behaviour, including prior sit-stay training at a distance from the entry, ignoring the dog, and training him to do an alternative desired behaviour such as sit near the entry which is rewarded with food and/or attention. The dog cannot sit and jump up on the person simultaneously. This presumes basic obedience training is in place and, if not, it is time to revisit the basics first. It can take time and patience, but the payoff is huge. In rare cases, overly exuberant dogs may be “hyperactive” and may require medication.
Most dogs will wander away from home if a strong stimulus is presented such as moving vehicles or running squirrels. Dogs do so whether in search of perceived prey, a mate if not neutered/spayed, a doggie or neighbour friend, or simply to explore their environment. Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done to guarantee that your dog will never wander off your property. However, there are a number of things that can be done to minimize the chances the dog will leave a property. Ensure your pet is microchipped to increase the chances of having him returned home in the event they get lost. Neutering/spaying your pet will greatly reduce the incidence of roaming. This is especially true of male dogs, as they tend to wander and roam more than female dogs. Dogs can potentially eat garbage and be at risk for poisoning, harass livestock, or be hit by cars, so uncontrolled off-leash activities are very risky and potentially life threatening for your dog. Many cities and municipalities also have leash bylaws requiring your dog to be leashed at all times while in public.
An obedient dog will generally listen to you when you cue it to come back to you. One must reward good behaviour within a few seconds in order for the pairing of action-reward to become entrenched. The way you say a command is as important as the word itself. Consistent tone is most helpful. Do not yell—raising your voice will excite the dog and will only serve to confuse him if he is used to a calm, consistent way of speaking. Whistle training is widely used by hunters to recall their dogs and can be a good way to call the dog if you live on a larger rural property. Clicker training is also popular and is excellent for dogs that get overexcited with intense rewards like touch or treats.
Invisible fencing products are available, but be aware that these products do not keep other dogs or coyotes out of the yard. It just keeps a dog in the yard once trained to do so, although high stimuli may result in the dog running through it. Your veterinarian can inform you further about this type of system (that is generally no longer recommended). The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) has reached a consensus stating: “The use of non-remote electronic collars (i.e. wherein the human handler is not in direct control of the device via remote control, such as with electronic fencing systems) should be used with caution and are only acceptable as an alternative to tethering if there is otherwise risk to both the dog and the public and the property is not amenable to traditional fencing. However, the dog must be properly trained and the device monitored to ensure that the applied stimulus is only just enough to produce the desired effect. Owners should be aware that such electronic systems are not secure as some dogs will bolt through the electronic fence and will avoid re-entering the fenced space since the stimulus would recur. Some dogs become very agitated from the stimulus however minimal and may become fearful of their environment.”
Fencing is the best tool to help prevent wandering outside of the perimeter, but it must be high and sturdy enough that the dog cannot jump over it or knock it over. Buried fences are typically required for dogs that are natural hunters of underground prey as they simply dig under regular fences.
A good rule of thumb is to never let a dog loose unless it is trained for special work such as guarding an enclosure, hunting, police work, and agility competitions. The basic command of “come” should be deeply ingrained in any household pets for their safety – it can mean the difference between a lost dog and a dog safe at home as they may manage to escape their home, yard, or collar.
Pets do not belong on kitchen counters for hygienic reasons. Offer alternative elevated locations on which the cat can jump such as shelves or a cat tree. Make those areas more appealing than counters by placing food rewards, toys, catnip, or other items to explore at different times. Ensure counters have nothing interesting for your cat to investigate. Sometimes closing doors to the room is necessary. Placement of counter top substrates on the surface such as crinkly foil may successfully discourage some cats. Keep food off of counters and/or out of reach in a microwave or cupboard to deter dogs that jump up to grab food.
It is natural for many dogs to want to dig and most dogs enjoy doing so. In fact, many breeds have been genetically selected over the years specifically because of their inclination and abilities to dig. This includes most terrier breeds (hence, the name terrier, from the French word terre, which means earth or ground). Unfortunately, digging may become a behavioural problem when it is done in the wrong setting. Dogs that spend a lot of time alone outdoors or are confined to a yard for long periods of time without supervision tend to use digging as an activity. The classic example of this is the case where the dog is let out rather than being taken out for active pet-owner interaction. In rare cases, the dog may be “hyperactive” and require medication.
There are a number of possible solutions to correct digging problems. Your veterinarian is the best source for information, resources, and solutions. Digging due to lack of activity and stimulation can be resolved by eliminating the boredom from your dog's life. Ensure he is exercised in order to burn off excess energy, including plenty of running, playing, and fetching, as his health allows. Redirecting his energy to other activities when he has opportunity to dig may be helpful. However, when he is not supervised during training, you must either keep him in a crate or provide him with a run that has a concrete floor or access to a fence with buried barrier material.
If all else fails, you may need to provide him with his own digging area where he can dig to his heart's content without fear of reprisals. If this becomes an alternative, you will first need to train your dog to use this area. This can be accomplished by encouraging him to dig in the digging area and rewarding him when he does so. You can try burying some of his favourite toys to encourage digging so he is rewarded when he digs them up. Take him to the digging area if you catch him digging elsewhere and reward him promptly when he uses this area instead. Digging can be controlled by teaching him to dig where it is appropriate, spending more time with him, increasing activities with him, and providing lots of exercise. Clicker training can also be useful for conditioning him towards desired behaviours.
CATS AND GARDENS
Cats let outdoors will select soil as their most favoured litter substrate. Many deterrents can be tried, but what works for one cat may not work well for another. It sometimes takes a few trials to establish the best strategy.
It is important to keep yards and gardens clear of cat feces (especially those fecal deposits that are over 24 hours old and thus infectious) because outdoor cats may hunt and pick up toxoplasmosis, a parasite that can infect people via their feces. This protects children that may play in dirt and not wash before putting fingers in their mouth and pregnant women who might garden where stool has been deposited.
An ideal solution is to cover the garden soil with a deep layer of mulch including bark chips or strips, gravel or river stones, or other commercial mulch that has large size components. Cats love fine sand and soil texture for litter and do not appear to dig through heavy pebbles or bark chips, so these mulches can act as safe deterrents. Unfortunately, this can be costly if the garden surface area is large. The layer must be about 4 in. (or 10 cm) deep to function properly.
Fences around gardens have been tried with limited success. A high thin wire mesh fence that is not particularly strong and steady or a closely spaced picket fence can discourage a cat, but may not be aesthetically pleasing or fit into the landscape design. Fences with gaps that can admit a cat will not discourage them.
“Booby traps” are used by some, but must be set with care in order not to harm roaming cats or wildlife. Upside-down mouse traps were often set in the past, but can inadvertently entrap and injure a paw or tail and are not recommended for humane reasons. A safe booby trap consists of a sprinkler system set to water the garden at irregular intervals. This can be a helpful strategy, though water restrictions in the local community may make this impractical at certain times of the year.
Mothballs were once used throughout gardens as their smell repels cats, but this is not recommended for environmental and safety reasons. They may look like candy to young children who might try to eat them. The active ingredient naphthaline (NAP) is a polyaromatic hydrocarbon, a known toxin to humans and wildlife, and is classed as a serious environmental pollutant. The NAP originates from coal tar and petroleum, so if it melts in rainwater, and a cat drinks even a small amount of tainted water it may experience serious illness because cats are particularly sensitive to the tar and petroleum class compounds. This concern also applies to wildlife such as rabbits and birds, and runoff can contaminate waterways.
Another safe, and perhaps the only definitive solution, is to let cats out only when their owners are observing and in control of them. It is important to ensure cats are not left out on a leash unattended due to a risk of strangulation or the presence of another aggressive animal (a tethered cat has no option to run away and may be injured). Sometimes, they will also slip their collar. A harness is a safer and more comfortable point of attachment for a leash and any collar should be a breakaway type if outside.
A barking dog, especially in apartments or closely spaced housing, can be a public nuisance. This is particularly problematic when owners are out of the residence. See our article about separation anxiety for tips since barking when alone can be triggered by this condition. Most unwanted barking is either communicative to other local dogs or defensive of people or property. Normal barking can be justified for the circumstances and should be of a duration proportional to the presence of the trigger. If barking is excessive in duration or occurs in situations during which triggers are not identified (i.e. no one knows why the dog is barking), the dog may be suffering from a generalized anxiety disorder. These dogs generally require medication and a behavioural modification treatment plan.
Debarking is not a recommended procedure. Barking collars are available in citronella, or electric versions. Shock collars are not recommended. Citronella collars will not curb vocalization in anxious dogs (barking related to separation anxiety or generalized anxiety). Your veterinarian can share resources and strategies – behavioural modification is the best treatment of all.
The methodical use of modern training and behavioural modification techniques provide the best chance of developing a pet with normal behaviour and adequate basic training for life around the home. Your veterinarian is able to provide basic recommendations or offer a referral to a specialist that can assist with more entrenched behaviours.
Kathleen Cavanagh, BSc DVM MET
Consulting Online Editor CVMA
Diane Frank DVM, DACVB
Consulting Specialist Editor
June 12 2018