There are three common reasons pets have behavior problems, but their humans often misunderstand them. Here’s what’s going on.
Q: How can I better understand my pet? She often misbehaves or seems angry, and I’m never sure why.
A: When I work with clients, I see three common causes of problem behaviors in dogs and cats. Here’s what they are and how to get back on track to a good relationship.
The first is misunderstanding or ignoring a pet’s body language. You may not notice that your pet is asking for space because she’s afraid, anxious or stressed. When you don’t respond to signals such as yawning or lip-licking in dogs, or squinting or turning the head away in cats, your pet may progress to growling or snarling to get the message across. You, in turn, read that as “bad behavior” instead of recognizing that your pet is expressing fear, anxiety or stress.
Another common mistake is putting a pet in a situation she’s afraid of — one involving small children or loud noises, for instance — so she can get used to it. Insisting that she allow your 5-year-old nephew to hold her or running the vacuum in the same room with her can cause panic and increase fear. Instead, use gradual desensitization and counterconditioning to help reduce her stress and be better able to manage it in scary situations.
I also see people forcing pets to accept nail trims or having tangles combed out. In the struggle to escape what may have previously been a painful experience — it hurts to have nails “quicked” or hair pulled — pets may struggle, potentially injuring themselves or the person handling them. That makes it difficult to ensure that they get good care. A better approach is to work quietly and calmly to teach pets that rewards come with calm cooperation. You can find videos and articles about body language, behavior and training at fearfreehappyhomes.com.
There’s more – including a look at the new field of animal social work – in Pet Connection, the weekly nationally syndicated pet feature I co-write with Kim Campbell Thornton and my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker.