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Pet Parent New Year’s Resolutions


It’s that time of year when we all start thinking about what we want to do in 2014 to accomplish our goals and make our lives better.  We have a protocol for pet parents that we know from our years of experience, both as professionals and as pet owners, will make your life with your pet better for both of you.  We’ve used our Seven Step Positive Proaction Plan © for almost 20 years to help prevent and resolve behavior problems in dogs and cats.  Suzanne’s best-selling “Pet Behavior Protocols” book is based on these seven steps, and we think our Plan is the perfect one to follow to improve your pet’s behavior and your relationship with your four-legged best friend in 2014.  This article is a bit longer than usual, but we think it’s worth it to share our exclusive Seven Step Plan© with you.

Step One: Catch and Reward Your Pet Doing Something Right
Too often, pets get the most attention when their behavior is a problem.  We encouraged our clients to change their thinking FROM “how can I get him to stop…..”  TO “how can I get him to do what I want so I can reward him”.

Step Two:  Don’t Let Bad Habits Develop
Pets get good at the behaviors they practice.  The same rule holds true for people - just ask a music teacher or anyone who tries to learn a new skill.  Manage your pet’s environment so you don’t allow “bad” behaviors to happen OR make it easier for your pet to do what you want, and more difficult to do what you don’t want.  For example, if your cat is peeing on the bed, close the door to the bedroom, and then start investigating WHY she wants to relieve herself there.  If you stand on your dog’s leash when visitors come, it’s VERY hard for her to jump up, but easy for her to keep all four feet on the ground – a behavior you can then reward.

Step Three: Meet Your Pet’s Behavioral Needs
Many behavior problems are the result of pets trying to get their needs met, but in ways owners find unacceptable.  If your dog is out of control when you come home, but she’s spent the last 6 hours in a crate, she needs to get her needs for social time, physical exercise and play met before she’ll be calm enough to settle down and listen to you.  If your cat is relieving herself on your bed, the litter in her box may not feel as good to her as the softness of your bed covers and it’s time to change to a finer grained litter.

Step Four: Use the “Take Away” Method to Discourage Unwanted Behaviors
Technically, this is called negative punishment, but it means withholding something your pet wants as a consequence for unwanted behavior.  It’s similar to taking your kid’s car keys away for a bad report card.  If your cat is pestering for food, or your dog is barking for attention, leave the room.  These unwanted behaviors cause the things your pets want to be taken away or withheld.

Step Five: Limit the Use of “Discipline” and Use it Correctly When Needed
What we call “punishment” in everyday language is really positive punishment and means doing something your pet finds unpleasant when unwanted behaviors happen.  It’s VERY difficult to use “discipline” correctly without causing harm, and the details of this are beyond what we can discuss here.  For now, just take our word for it that this is rarely the best, or first option for changing behavior.

Step Six: Have Realistic Expectations
Pets don’t behave out of spite or revengeful motivations, do bad things even though “they know better”, show aggression because they are “jealous”, or express guilt over what you consider a wrong doing.  Realistic expectations also include knowing your pet’s species and breed tendencies.  These are the behaviors that are most readily seen and may be the most difficult to change.  Irish setters like our Coral were bred to stalk birds, so it’s unrealistic for us to expect Coral to not be distracted by birds she sees when we walk her.

Step Seven: Learn Your Pet’s Communication Signals
Research has clearly shown that the average pet owner is not skilled at recognizing signs of fear, stress, or anxiety in their dogs.  Prior to biting, most dogs give clear signals they are extremely uncomfortable in the situation, but the victim and others often don’t recognize these signs.

Check out this free reference from ASPCA regarding body language for a dog.

Check out a free reference from the Humane Society of the U.S on cat body language.

We seldom guarantee anything when it comes to pet behavior, but we do guarantee that if you follow these Seven Steps every day, you’ll have a better behaved pet, your pet will enjoy life more, and you’ll enjoy life with your pet more as well!

Dr. Suzanne Hetts and her husband Dr. Dan Estep are Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists. They provide professional behavior education services online, and resources to prevent and resolve pet behavior problems to both pet pros and pet owners. Coral, their diva-dog Irish setter provides daily inspiration.

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