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Fear, stress and anxiety are at the root of many problem behaviors in cats and dogs — and in some cases, human behavior is the direct cause of a pet’s actions. Many pet owners fail to understand this, though, and instead blame the dog or cat for the “bad” behavior.
In my experience, pet owners make three common mistakes that lead to problem behaviors in their dogs and cats. Here’s what they are, and how to fix them.
Mistake #1: Ignoring a pet’s body language. The vast majority of pet owners don’t understand what their pets are saying. Your cat or dog may use simple body language to politely request that you give him some space. If you ignore him or misinterpret his signals, he is likely to progress to more pronounced warnings, like a growl or hiss, to get his message across. Failure to heed a pet’s warnings can make it seem like a bite or scratch came out of nowhere. Instead of waiting until your pet lashes out, familiarize yourself with the early signs of anxiety and stress and tailor your own behavior accordingly.
Mistake #2: Pushing a pet to face his fears. Repeatedly exposing an animal to a situation that frightens him, without gradual desensitization to allay the stress, is a high-risk strategy and one that can escalate your pet’s panic and fear rather than decrease it. While it is possible that your pet may learn to tolerate whatever it is that scares him (loud noises, bright lights, small children), it is unlikely that he will ever completely lose the associated sense of fear or anxiety. In addition, force- or punishment-based training strategies can escalate anxiety and aggression and deteriorate the bond of trust between person and pet. Reward-based strategies, on the other hand, are more successful at helping a pet learn to manage his stress in scary situations. In some cases, the best resolution is to manage the environment around the pet to remove stressors altogether (when possible).
Mistake #3: Forcing a pet to comply with care. Forcing a pet to endure care that scares or upsets him, such as nail trims, grooming or other procedures, can be emotionally and physically dangerous for the pet. An upset cat or dog may struggle during handling or physically fight and bite to get away. A frighted animal can injure himself and anyone caring for him, including veterinary staff, groomers — even his owner. This can compromise a pet’s ability to get necessary veterinary care. A better approach is to teach the pet that calm cooperation earns ample rewards. Such efforts are important both in the home and other places of care, including the veterinarian and the groomer. The mission of Fear Free Certified Professionals is to protect both the physical and emotional health of pets during care. Talk to your veterinarian or groomer about fear-free strategies to help your pet receive the care he needs without the stress.
With all behavior problems, your first stop should be your veterinarian’s office, to make sure your pet’s behavior isn’t connected to a medical issue (especially if the behavior is new to your pet). Once your pet has a clean bill of health, talk with your vet about finding a veterinary behaviorist or reward-based trainer to provide the help your pet deserves.
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