Tips to Keep Your Pet



What would you give to make your pet’s behavior problems disappear? Believe it or not, most issues can be resolved in three simple steps. Follow along, and your pet will be humming “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in no time!

 Rule Out Medical Problems

Be careful not to confuse a behavior problem with a health issue. For instance, cats with feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD) often urinate outside their litter boxes. Prescribed medications can also have behavioral side effects. Consider the commonly prescribed medicine prednisone, an anti-inflammatory steroid. Side effects include increased water consumption and, as a result, increased urine output. Some of the cleanest dogs I know have house-training lapses when taking prednisone, unless their guardians provide additional elimination walks. Whenever medication is prescribed for your pet, ask about the side effects so you can be prepared.

 Watch Your Reward Process

To paraphrase Thorndike’s Law of Effect, rewarded behavior is likely to increase in frequency and unrewarded behavior is likely to decrease in frequency. Take Miss Puss. Each morning, she taps you on the face at four o’clock, letting you know that she’d like a can of kitty morsels. She seems in dire need of a meal, so you do her bidding—and unwittingly reward her behavior. You can bet she’ll be back the next morning! She has learned that tapping yields tasty treats. However, if you had turned a cold shoulder to her early-morning pleas, Puss would have had no reward and no reason to try that tactic again.

What to do? You resolve to hang tough and ignore Miss Puss’s entreaties from now on. But be warned: what started out as a gentle love tap may now escalate to a forceful, extended-claw swat. This worsening behavior is called an “extinction burst.” The animal throws everything she’s got into the behavior that once netted her a reward, testing what it may take to garner a payoff before she gives up and moves on. Her poor guardian must remain unmoved in order to extinguish the misbehavior. Giving in teaches the animal that a concerted effort just might work.

Sometimes, figuring out what rewards an animal can be tricky. Consider canine greeting behavior. You walk through the front door, and Bouncing Betty greets you with a well-placed slam to your solar plexus. You double over in pain and holler a few choice expletives. Is this rewarding to Betty? Yes—you have lowered your face closer to her, and she has your attention. Dogs are like children—both prefer negative attention to no attention at all. Withdrawal of attention (walking back out the door or turning to face the wall) whenever her paws are off the floor would remove Betty’s rewards. To encourage appropriate behavior, teach her to sit, or pay attention to her only when she has all four paws on the floor. Note:
Sometimes we are so relieved when bad behavior has stopped that we don’t acknowledge good acts. Don’t forget to add a quiet “good pup” or slip Betty a tidbit to celebrate a job well done.

 Consider Environmental Management

Some guardians are training junkies—in the best sense. For them, resolving problems by teaching alternate behaviors is a pleasure. Others are less committed to training and more interested in keeping things simple. If that is your philosophy, environmental management may suit you better. Does one really need to spend countless hours creating setups to teach Snoopy to stay out of the garbage, when just keeping the trash can out of reach would suffice? Don’t want the cat on the bed? Close the bedroom door. Hate it when the puppy eats the kids’ toys? Put the toys away when the pup is out and put the pup away (in a crate or gated area) when the toys are spread all over the living room. It’s quick and easy and may be just what the overscheduled guardian needs to resolve certain problems. Note: Please make sure not to abuse this solution by socially isolating your companion animal in a crate, garage, yard, or basement for long hours every day.


These three steps can make most perplexing pet problems vanish. But if yours persist, contact a Certified Pet Dog Trainer or an applied animal behaviorist to learn what other tricks they have up their sleeves.



The elderly socialite came flying into my office, hanging on for dear life to the leash of a handsome border collie mix. The dog lunged forward to greet me, leaving a large muddy smear on my trousers. The woman’s eyes told her story: she adored the dog, but she desperately needed help with him.

Joan had adopted Todd from the shelter a few weeks earlier. He appeared to be the perfect dog – affectionate, quiet and mannerly. But Todd’s true colors emerged as he became more comfortable in his new surroundings. At home in Joan’s apartment, he amused himself by chewing shoes and barking at noises in the hallway. He was in perpetual motion despite several walks a day. Indeed, walking Todd was a daunting task in itself because he was so unruly. He barked and lunged at just about everything he saw, including other dogs, cyclists, rollerbladers and skateboarders. Several times already, he had overpowered Joan and proceeded to chase after people and other dogs.


The Honeymoon Ends

Todd’s transformation from ideal companion to canine delinquent is an all-too-frequent story. Animals are often under extreme stress while in a shelter environment, which can have a subduing effect on them. Being adopted by new owners and moving to a new home further compounds the stress, so the dog holds back, remaining calm and composed, while he familiarizes himself with the new surroundings. As he develops comfort and confidence, he displays more of his “normal” behavior, which, for some shelter dogs, is not particularly endearing.

Todd’s wild behavior on walks was Joan’s main concern. Dogs who misbehave by lunging and barking at passersby are often all bluff – and Todd was no exception. The times that he had pulled away from Joan ended uneventfully. He ran toward the dog or person but then stopped short, lost interest and returned to Joan. If a dog approached him, Todd hid behind his guardian. In reality, Todd was an under-socialized, frightened dog who had adopted the strategy that his best defense was a strong offense. Joan’s problems with Todd were further exacerbated by the fact that, by nature, he is a breed that needs a lot of exercise. Border collies are highly attuned to movement and become stimulated by anything moving past them quickly. An under-exercised border collie is likely to try herding vehicles, bikes and skateboards; in confinement, he will find all sorts of ways to keep himself amused.

I suggested that Joan take Todd to a nearby dog run for daily exercise and socialization. In the morning, she took him when few other dogs were present so she could wear him out playing ball. In the evening, Todd was happy to chase the dogs while they played, but he also became more confident interacting with them. At home, he was much calmer, less bothered by outside noises and more inclined to sleep. And Joan offered him plenty of tasty dog chew bones so he no longer victimized her shoes. On walks, however, he was as unruly as ever.

If At First You Don’t Succeed?

We designed a walk strategy to teach Todd to tune in to Joan when people and dogs passed by. Each time a person or dog came into view, Joan spoke to Todd in a happy tone of voice and pulled out a handful of tasty treats. She encouraged him to nibble at the treats while they continued to move past. Once the person or dog was a few feet behind them, Joan praised Todd for a job well done and gave him a tidbit. When Todd caught on to this new association, he began to look to Joan in anticipation whenever he saw someone approaching. Soon, she was able to praise Todd enthusiastically for looking at her and delay pulling out the treats until the person or dog went by.

Joan was very pleased with Todd’s progress for the first few weeks, but then she reported that he sometimes ignored the treats and chose instead to bark and lunge, usually at fast-moving objects. She had already tried increasing the value of the treats, to no avail. We decided to use a punishment procedure to teach Todd to inhibit his desire to chase and herd. I fitted Todd with an anti-bark citronella collar, which automatically delivers a burst of citrus spray under the dog’s chin whenever he barks. Todd was no dummy; he quickly learned that it was in his best interest to stay calm and get treats rather than get riled up and be sprayed. Finally, Joan was able to enjoy their walks, and Todd benefited by receiving even more exercise and socialization.

Several months later I received a thank-you card from Joan. “Thank you so much, Dr. Reid, for all your help,” it read. “Todd is such a great dog now – he’s far more well-behaved and loyal than any man I’ve known in my life!”