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How to See Your Pet
through a Behaviorist's Eyes
Hi, I'm Dr. John Wright. For the past 20 years, I've been living an adventure story with more twists and turns than a Hitchcock thriller. My "official" title, complete with Ph.D. after my name, is "certified applied animal behaviorist." I am one of fewer than 50 such behaviorists in North America.
But I've also come to think of myself as a real-life pet detective—one who looks for clues to solve sometimes mind-boggling behavior problems presented to frustrated owners, puzzled veterinarians, and baffled trainers by a wonderful menagerie of dogs and cats who are doing things their people can't cope with or correct on their own. I'm talking about tearing up the house every day while Mom and Dad are at work; hiding in the bathtub whenever there's a thunderstorm; peeing all over the brand-new carpeting; wailing or barking all night long; or biting the kid next door. And those are just the ordinary problems!
Distraught owners call me when they are struggling with the tough behavior problems that seem to arise for nearly all pet owners sooner or later, even those who have been through puppy kindergarten or obedience training courses. And after thinking about it and trying a few things and having little or no success, they ask their veterinarian what to do, and the vet says to ask me.
My technique is a little bit different from that of many of my colleagues to whom you might bring your dog or cat for aconsultation. That's because I take my bag of tricks—well, my briefcase and pen, anyway—into the home where the trouble is occurring. In their own environment, I can see the dog or cat and the owners, "warts and all." I think there is no substitute for understanding the animals' own turf and seeing the way they live. With any luck at all, I can uncover the clues that are hiding in the corners of the owner's mind or under Fluffy's or Fargo's monogrammed water bowl.
The trick is in using those clues—the history of the animal's behavior, what the owner has observed, and what I can discern with my own two eyes and sometimes other senses—to figure out what gives and to decide what to do about it. Here I draw upon my own education and research and that of my colleagues and come up with some ideas on how to fix things.
I know that all of us want the very best relationships we can forge with our beloved companion animals. We want to help them when problems arise, not punish them or abandon them. With the information in this book, you will never need to feel that giving up your wonderful pet is the only way out.
Don't Be in Denial
Before they get desperate enough to consider giving up their dogs and cats, the owners I meet in the course of everyday life are more likely to be in denial about the things their pets are doing that make living with them less than copacetic. The standard response to trouble is just to ignore it and hope it will go away.
Well, it usually won't go away, and turning a blind eye to certain problems can be dangerous. I have walked into more than one home where a dog is growling or snapping at a 2-year-old child. The parents, however, are sure that the dog won't bite because Brutus is such a wonderful pet. They just wish he wouldn't growl!
Or they adore their cat; she is usually so affectionate. It's just that she has this one itty-bitty problem. When the husband walks down the hall to the kitchen, Snowball latches onto his calf and goes along for the ride.
These clients are risking serious injury by misunderstanding the bad situation they are in because they don't want to think of their pets as bad or problematical. It's natural for people to be willing to overlook one or two instances of bad behavior almost as if it didn't happen. Or maybe it was an accident. Or maybe it's just that even pets have bad days once in a while. That is not unreasonable!
But if the bad behavior becomes a pattern that is impossible to ignore, it needs to be dealt with. Today there are a dizzying array of resources out there so that even the loudest cry for help can be swallowed up in the general clamor of pet products, advice columns, Internet chat rooms, and books of advice from self-styled experts. There is precious little good, humane, research-based advice that will resolve problems for animal lovers. So I'm not surprised when people come to me saying that they have tried "everything," and "nothing" has worked. Maybe their pet needs psychoanalysis!
Dogs and Cats on the Couch
Ten years ago, the phrase "animal psychologist" was still drawing snickers. People thought that the dog or cat "shrink" was a high-priced trainer going into the homes of Hollywood stars to tell people that little Foo Foo needed more love, attention, and hugs. When I would arrive at distraught clients' homes with my briefcase, I would be ushered in quickly, lest the neighbors catch wind of the "head doctor" coming to treat the crazy cat or dysfunctional dog.
Today, the applied animal behaviorist is becoming more accepted as part of a pet support team that can include veterinarian, groomer, walker, trainer, kennel owner, and sitter. But as they say, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. People who wouldn't think of swatting their dog with a newspaper to inspire good behavior are going to the opposite extreme without understanding what they are doing. They've chosen what they think of as a Freudian route of trying to psychoanalyze their dog in order to "cure" it.
This must be what those dog shrinks do—put Fido on the couch so that they can learn to understand him and solve the problem. We can do that ourselves! But the absurdity of this approach is matched only by its futility. In the end, I get the phone call anyway, if the family hasn't already given up on the pet for its "stubbornness" or "inability to learn."
It leads to explanations like this: "Well, doctor, we thought that if we looked at these incidents and really talked about them and then faced what Cheyenne is trying to tell us when he destroys the entire living room ... Well, we've decided that he's awfully hurt when we go out to the movies. Next time, we'll explain to him that we really, really love him and that we will be back soon. We shouldn't have just closed the door and left."
But "explaining" the situation to the dog won't help. It may seem reasonable and thoughtful, but it betrays a lack of knowledge of the animal's cognitive capabilities, which I will explain in chapter 3. And in a bigger and longer, guilt-ridden goodbye, these hypothetical dog owners have chosen a seemingly logical solution that's doomed to failure. That's because the more fuss the "parents" decide to make over their dog prior to going out, the bigger mess they are likely to find when they get back, as you will learn in our discussion of separation anxiety in chapter 14. So now the owners are calling me in an even more alarmed state than when they began their homegrown shrink-style "therapy."
Leader of the Pack
At the other extreme is the pet owner who hopes that a great deal of control and discipline will result in proper behavior. After all, the dog "knows better" than to nip at the hand of the master. Doesn't she? "We've decided that Silky has to do exactly what we say, when we say it," a client with a biting dog tells me. In this "nothing-in-life-is-free" strategy, the dog has to sit or stay or lie down to earn the privilege of eating, going outside to relieve herself, or even chewing on a toy. Many trainers advocate the kind of relationship in which the animal must do something for you to earn whatever it is she wants.
It is possible that this strict regimen will discourage the dog from nipping. On the other hand, this approach may not work if its only consequence is to discourage the dog! In the interests of discipline, the main effect could be to create a sort of robot that may be punished for not following "orders." At the very least, the poor dog clearly understands that she's subservient to you.
But isn't that what it's all about? Don't we have to become the "alpha animal," making sure that the cat or dog knows who's boss? Shouldn't we take charge of the "pack," which the ordinary family magically morphed into sometime during the politically correct 1990s?
Well, I hate to admit this—since I was one of the handful of people trying to correctly understand and document real behavioral characteristics of dogs and cats in the 1970s—but we had it wrong.
The theory was that people should behave like members of the pack, and the animal needed to be controlled by its dominant member. So I was among those behaviorists gripping a young dog by the fur on its neck to hold the too assertive pup down in a moment of discipline, just like the mother wolf was supposed to do. This technique turns out to be infrequent even for mommy wolves, and it is clearly not an appropriate method of instruction for a dog or cat owner. You won't hear that from many gung-ho "alpha animal" trainers because the word hasn't really gotten out yet. But now it's time to move on to the next level of behavior training. I will show throughout Ain't Misbehavin' that our role is not to dominate but to lead and enable the pets in our household to fulfill their needs.
Over the last decade, this wolf-envy among dog owners has become the "in" theory, tossed around by everyone who could tune in a daily talk show. This concept became so popular in recent years that the phrase "alpha male" came to replace the earlier "macho man" as the trendiest concept in the social fabric of our culture. Unfortunately, thinking of our male dogs—or cats—as alpha animals can stir up a lot more trouble than the original behavior problem.
11 Steps to a Well-Behaved Pet
I've met hundreds of cats and dogs during the last two decades. Most of them had owners who tried different approaches without success. That's because they didn't know what questions to ask themselves or what the answers meant in terms of behavior.
However, with a basic understanding of what their pet's needs are and how they can go about helping their dog or cat fulfill them, clients are nearly always able to help resolve the situation or improve it to the point where everyone is coping nicely again. We still have much to learn about what our domesticated animals are like; I learn something new almost weekly.
The important thing is that you know your pet better than any outside expert can. Together, we can make a great team for improving the daily lives of both your family and your dogs and cats.
So, if talking them out of their bad habits doesn't work, bullying them into shape is wrong, and treating the family like a wolf pack turns out to be misguided, how do we effectively deal with these sometimes naughty dogs and cats of ours? What tools, tactics, and procedures can a certified applied animal behaviorist like me use to help owners like you with their pets so that problems don't crop up? What resources can I give you to handle any problems that should arise? Here are 11 basic steps for you to take when a problem comes up. Within the chapters of Ain't Misbehavin', you'll learn the rest of the story.
Figure out what the dog or cat is doing wrong. This suggestion may seem obvious, but sometimes owners focus on what they think their pet is feeling, or why it is punishing them, instead of concentrating on the actual behavior. You need to think about what actually happens in terms that are objective and verifiable. "Spike chews up my shoes" is more tangible than "he gets upset." The dog chewing on the shoes is the behavior you will be documenting in Step 2. We'll get to his "feelings" later!
Record the "bad" behavior. Put down the rolled-up newspaper or the bottle of migraine tablets, and get a piece of paper and a pencil or open up a file on the computer called "Muffy's Mistakes." Write down how many times the unwanted behavior has occurred in the past seven days, so that you will have a baseline from which to work. That's really the only legitimate way to see if the treatment program is reducing the problem. The numbers, week to week, will tell the tale!
Note when "bad" things happen. You will need more tracking than just the number of times the dog or cat is misbehaving. The time of day things go wrong is another thing to note. With this information, gathered over the course of a week, you'll find out whether you need to work on changing things that are happening only from dinnertime to bedtime, from sunup to sundown, during every waking minute, or at random times 24 hours a day. (You have my sympathies if it's the last!)
Most behavior problems fall into a rather predictable pattern of time and place, so you'll be able to focus your energies accordingly. I remember one cat whose owner was going berserk because the feline was "constantly" spraying the walls. That rather general timeframe didn't really help me get to the root of the problem. I asked for his help in trying to pinpoint the time of day when the problem occurred.
After some thought and observation, he realized that the cat was actually spraying only within the first hour after everyone went to bed. It turned out that a rival tom was coming around outside at that same time each night! After we isolated the problematical time, both the cause of the misbehavior and the likely cures became quickly apparent.
Jot down the circumstances. Going hand in hand with the second and third steps is the question, "In what situations does it occur?" Does the dog bite only when you walk toward his food bowl, or does he bite anytime he's holding a toy or other object? Is the cat missing the box all the time, or just when you're in the same room?
Perhaps she only scratches you when you try to get her out from under the bed. Or possibly the dog tears up the furniture every time you come home from work and then go out again but never touches it when you're at work. Follow these first four steps carefully; they'll give you the clues you need to solve your pet's problem as we begin our detective work.
Find out if something's wrong. The next thing to do is to make sure that the cat or dog does not have a physical or medical problem. Have your veterinarian do a thorough examination. Frequently, something physical is causing or contributing to the problem behavior, as was the case with Bruno. You should also know the working status of all the dog's or cat's senses.
A dog who isn't able to hear a command is not likely to obey it. And a cat whose eyes are clouded by cataracts may just mistake your finger for a tasty treat. Isn't a physical explanation for your pet's problem more palatable than assuming that "she just hates me"? So you need to take care of any medical problems first and then observe if the behavior changes—hopefully for the better!—or remains the same.
Stock your training toolbox. This step is a little trickier, but it's very important if your pet is going to change its misguided ways anytime soon! Try to become familiar enough with your dog or cat so that you're able to perceive what he or she is experiencing. In other words, look at the world from your dog's or cat's point of view. If you need to get down on all fours and follow her the next time she explores the house, so be it. Use your knowledge of her behavior and responses to compile a list of words and phrases that make her feel good. Try to put them in order, starting with the "best" and going to less best. Obviously, words that excite her the most will be motivating—"Go for a walk?" will usually rouse the most devoted couch potato, whereas "Where's your mouse?" might only rate one eye opening as the cat snoozes on the sofa.
Objects should also be included on this list. The sight of the leash or a dog treat has been known to induce paroxysms of joy in a dour Great Dane, and the sight and/or smell of dried catnip might drive an indolent Persian into a frenzy of enthusiastic purring and rubbing. These words and objects are the tools you'll use to change your pet's motivation and, therefore, unwanted behavior.
Form a hypothesis. The next thing you need to do is make an educated guess as to why the pet is misbehaving. (No, it's not because he's a "rotten apple," or she is "spiteful" or "spoiled." Name-calling will get us nowhere. Remember that you need to take the cat's- or dog's-eye view!) If you can get to the reason for the behavior problem, then you can usually remove the cause and be more successful than if you simply try to keep your pet from doing it.
At this stage, I'm usually with the clients in their home, and we create the hypothesis together. But the knowledge you have of your own pet—and what you'll learn as you go through this book—will help you become your own pet detective. You'll be able to use the insight you already possess regarding the companion animal that you know much better than I could ever hope to. So go ahead and offer a hypothesis about why Cooper is suddenly losing his house training or running from the toddler.
This may take more than just mental effort. You may have to walk out of the house and sneak back in half an hour later to see if Cooper has left a deposit on the Persian carpet. Or you may need to come home at noon to see if the deed has been done then.
In any case, you will be able to apply common sense and your knowledge of Cooper to come up with an idea or, more scientifically, a hypothesis. Try to figure out whether the behavior is fulfilling a psychological, biological, or social need, and what you would rather have your pet do to achieve the same end without driving you nuts. If he is peeing in the house (biological need), you simply want to divert him to pee outdoors or in his box instead. The need will still be met, but it will be accomplished in an acceptable way. I will elaborate on pets' needs in later chapters, particularly those in part 3.
Interrupt the bad behavior. With an educated guess as to why the problem is happening, it's time to interrupt the dog's or cat's behavior just before its occurrence. Better yet, prevent it from recurring by giving your pet something more interesting to do. You may want to block access to the area where the misbehavior is occurring. This is when you should use that list of "happy" words and objects to put your dog or cat in a mood that will keep him from causing trouble. You need to draw on one of those emotional words that will get the dog's or cat's attention and let him essentially forget what he is about to do that you really wish he wouldn't do.
Excerpted from Ain't Misbehavin' by John C. Wright, Ph.D., with Judi Wright Lashnits. Copyright © 2001 by John C. Wright and Judi Wright Lashnits. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Part One: 11 Steps to a Well-Behaved Pet|
|Chapter One: How to See Your Pet through a Behaviorist's|
|Part Two: Dr||Wright Reveals What Cats and Dogs Are Really Like|
|Chapter Two: The World According to Dogs and Cats||14|
|Chapter Three: A Behaviorist's Take on Pet Learning and|
|Chapter Four: What Your Pet Wants You to Know: Decoding|
|Body Language, Barking, and Behavior||64|
|Chapter Five: Managing Emotion—The Secret of Good|
|Part Three: Dr||Wright's Passages for Pets|
|Chapter Six: Puppies, Kittens, and Older Adoptees||98|
|Chapter Seven: Adolescent Issues||137|
|Chapter Eight: All Grown Up||159|
|Chapter Nine: Your Older Pet||180|
|Part Four: Putting It All Together—The Wright Behavior Program|
|Chapter Ten: Where Good Owners Go Wrong||209|
|Chapter Eleven: Dr.Wright's School for Manners||225|
|Chapter Twelve: Dr||Wright's Rewarding Routines for You|
|and Your New Pet||260|
|Chapter Thirteen: New Relationships, New People, New|
Posted August 10, 2005