We chatted to Justine Kruger from Just Dogs Behaviour and Ludovica Barnato – two recommended animal behaviourists - and asked what the most common behavioural problems are in cats and dogs and some advice on how to handle them. We thank them both for sharing their expertise with us.
Aggressive behaviour in dogs
Unfortunately, lockdown has increased anti-social behaviour in dogs as many dogs haven’t had the socialisation that they need. The key here is to understand the root of the problem, which you can do with the help of an experienced animal behaviourist. It’s easy to assume your dog is just ‘aggressive’ without realising that this behaviour possibly stems from anxiety, fear or perhaps a previous bad experience.
An animal behaviourist will help set out a treatment plan for you and your dog to help desensitise them to other animals and people. It can be a long process (especially with older dogs where bad behaviour may have been ‘reinforced’ or left too long) and it requires patience, but it is possible to remedy.
There are tools and tricks that may be recommended, depending on your dog’s personality, history and genetics.
- Work out what ‘triggers’ your dog and try to avoid these triggers. When your dog is triggered and moves into the ‘red zone’, no amount of shouting or getting cross with your dog will help. Treats won’t even help either and may send mixed messages and even reinforce this behaviour. In the heat of the moment, it is as if your dog is experiencing a ‘panic attack’ (even if it doesn’t look like this to you) and once in this ‘red zone’, treats, commands and the like won’t be understood.
- The key is to slowly expose your dog to these ‘triggers’ when they are calm and in a safe environment. An animal behaviourist may suggest that you take your dog to the local park regularly and safely introduce ‘social butterfly’ dogs (pets that really love other dogs and humans!). You may need to slowly get your pet to enjoy being around other people and dogs, firstly by going on more regular walks where there are one or two people and other dogs, but nowhere too crowded. The trick is to show your dog that other dogs aren't scary.
- You need to work with your dog’s reactivity, keeping them at a level where they are calm and relaxed. At this level you can use treats to reinforce great behaviour. As an example, if you are trying to get your dog used to strangers, ask guests not to greet your dog or give them any attention until your dog is in a relaxed state. You could then allow guests to feed a treat or two and slowly engage.
- Walking your dog even for five or ten minutes (in the right environment, away from any other barking / aggressive dogs) can calm your dog and get them used to being out and about.
- Aggression is complex and every dog is different, so it really is important to consult with a professional for advice that’s appropriate for your dog.
Dogs jumping up and getting over excited
A very common ‘problem’ is dogs jumping up when guests arrive. Why does this happen? Often, we have inadvertently encouraged it from puppy age – where we coo over the cute little dog and relish their happiness at meeting us! We only see that it’s a problem when the dog is an adolescent and the jumping is out of control!
There are lots of tricks you can try for this but again, there isn’t an overnight ‘cure’. As with most behavioural problems, it takes ‘rewiring’ bad behaviours, offering alternative behaviours, and reinforcing good behaviour.
- It can be helpful to use a harness and lead and you’ll need delicious dog treats. The goal is for your dog to be more excited about you (and the treats) than the guests. Try being with your dog far enough from the entrance where your guests will be arriving. Ask someone to open the door/gate for your guests while you stay with your dog. Reward your dog for a ‘sit’ and as soon as they look at the door/guests, get their attention again and reward. Repeat this and when they are nice and calm, go slowly towards the guests. Explain to your guests that only when all four paws are on the ground, can they greet your dog. Slowly, slowly your dog will learn that only calm behaviour is rewarded.
- Explain to guests and family that any jumping needs to be ignored. Even a ‘no, get down’ or any attention and waving hands can seem like a game for your dog.
- Every dog is different. If you find an ‘alternate’ behaviour they enjoy (and that can break the cycle of jumping up), go for it! For some dogs, it can even be that they learn to put their paws on a bucket (with a treat reward) when guests arrive. It really depends on their personality and what motivates them.
Dogs pulling on the lead
Puppy training comes highly recommended as the earlier a dog learns key commands and behaviours, the better! It is however possible to train an older dog, it just takes more time and perhaps a little more assistance from the experts!. If your dog is pulling on the lead, you might like to try some of these pointers:
- Make sure you have the right tools (e.g. a front-fastening harness and leash).
- Start inside your home. We all make the mistake of only putting on the harness and leash when it’s time to go to the beach or the park – the excitement is too much at this moment to teach your dog the behaviour you’d like to see.
- Have plenty of training treats on hand and walk around the house with your dog. Ask your dog to sit or lie down and reward them when they do. When they pull away, stop walking, engage, ask them to sit again. Keep repeating this and after some time you will see their behaviour start to change.
- When you have some confidence, take the walk into the garden and then to the park.
Cats afraid of strangers
Cats are more sociable than we are often led to believe. Cats can become fearful of strangers as they simply haven’t engaged with many other humans! These tips may help your cat to build confidence.
- Prepare any guests by letting them know that they must ignore the cat. Every interaction needs to happen on the cat’s terms. Ask them to not even look at your cat!
- When cats are super sensitive they’ll want to hide under the bed, in couches or cupboards. Block these areas off and rather invest in a scratch post with a cosy hideaway hole that they can use as a safe space to ‘retreat’ to. Position it near to where you will be sitting.
- Gradually try coaxing your cat out with a cat treat, but don’t expect this to happen straight away, it can take time.
Creating a healthy bond between cats
Our expectations can sometimes be out of line when it comes to introducing a new cat into the home. We’re so excited that we expect our older cat to be too! Here are a few things you can do to improve the bond between cats.
- Swap ‘scents’. Keep the cats in separate rooms so that they can smell each other through the door. If one loves a particular cat toy or scratch post, swap it with the other cat so that they get used to each other’s scent.
- Feed your cats at the same time but place their bowls on either side of the door. Eating is a positive experience for cats, so if they can smell and hear each other, they will associate the newcomer as a friend and not think that he or she is going to come and take over their territory.
Safe approach to an indoor cat experiencing the outdoors
A common question posed to animal behaviourists is how to enable an indoor cat to enjoy being outside, and how to do this safely.
Whilst it is not essential (many cats live very happy lives in their indoor environment), it is possible to take a cat outside on a harness and leash. If this is something you want to explore, read on:
- Start with getting your cat used to a harness. Just for a few minutes a day, put it on and if they aren’t comfortable, redirect their attention by playing with them or with treats. Increase the amount of time you spend doing this each day.
- When they are completely comfortable, attach the leash. Allow him or her to walk around (without you holding it) to get used to the sensation and when they’re happy, try holding the leash.
- Use cat treats to encourage them to walk ahead. You can do all of this inside and when you're ready, head out into the great outdoors.
Get in touch
With huge thanks to Justine Kruger and Ludovica Barnato for sharing their expertise with us and helping us put together this article.
And remember, we are also here to help so visit your local Absolute Pets store or get in touch with us online, or on Facebook.
Happy & Healthy