If only pets could talk! It would be so much easier if they could simply tell us what is bothering them. Instead we have to be good observers and spend a bit of time figuring it all out. Here's the 5 crucial steps to start solving your pet's behaviour problems...
1. Problem behaviour or behaviour problem?
This is the first thing we have to decide. A problem behaviour is an otherwise normal behaviour in a normal context that has become annoying to you or the neighbours, such as barking at passers by or at night, or your dog digging up the garden to bury bones.
Maybe your cat is urinating on the carpet because the litter tray is dirty or in an undesirable location, or scratching the lounge because she prefers it to the scratching post (or doesn't have one).
A behaviour problem on the other hand is where the behaviour is abnormal in the context of the situation and it may interfere with the dog's daily life, such as barking for long periods of the day when the owner is absent or chewing through doors or furniture.
2. Is it medical?
There is no use starting a training program if the problem is actually medical. A thorough veterinary physical examination is required to rule out any medical causes for the behaviour. A cat may be urinating outside of the litter tray because it has a urinary tract infection or it has arthritis and can't climb into the tray. A dog may suddenly become aggressive when touched because it has back pain, a sore ear or a tooth abscess.
3. Can your pet learn?
Some pets may be too anxious or over-excited to respond to normal training techniques. Repeating commands or yelling at a fearful or anxious dog is only going to make the dog more anxious or heighten the arousal of an already over-aroused dog. Like people, dogs and cats can have mental health disorders that affect their ability to listen and respond to you in a normal way.
If your pet can learn, some simple training techniques can be implemented using positive reinforcement, like teaching your pet to be calm on cue. Behaviour modification programs can be designed for individual problems like not jumping up, walking calmly on lead, not reacting to other dogs etc.
4. Can the behaviour be managed?
Sometimes simple management changes can make a huge improvement. Change the size and placement of litter trays, clean them more often, keep warring cats in separate areas of the house, improve yard fencing, divide the yard for dogs that don't get along and provide more enrichment for bored dogs. It's important to make daily play and training time to help your pet learn expected behaviour with consistent positive rewards.
5. Does my pet need medication?
If your pet is too anxious or aroused to learn then anti-anxiety medication may be required for learning to be able to occur. Pets with behaviour problems that are due to mental illness need medication, just like any other organ disease. Anti-anxiety medications work by normalising neurotransmitter levels in the brain so that learning can occur and eventually new neuronal connections can be made.
Medication is not a cure but combined with environmental management and specific behaviour modification (training) the problem can be managed to an acceptable level for the owner and the pet.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each case needs to be assessed individually and therapies designed according to the diagnosis, the owner's expectations, the pet's welfare and the unique environment in which they live together.
Most importantly, get help soon. The more your pet practices an undesirable behaviour, whatever the cause, the more it becomes a habitual response to the situation or stimulus. A fear can also become generalised to associated noises or objects.