Dear Inquisitive Canine:
My name is Greta. I’m a 7-month-old German shepherd puppy. I sure hope you can help me, because my mom and dad are really sad about a behavior I have that I can’t control. You see, I’m absolutely fascinated by my kitty brother and sister. I can’t seem to leave them alone.
I know they are beloved family members, but part of me thinks they make really interesting wind-up squeaky toys. I’m dying to figure out how to get them to squeak. My parents pull me away just when I get my paw on them. They really freak out when I try to find the squeaker. How can I control this behavior?
Congratulations! Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward gaining control. I commend you for getting this far, especially when the behavior is one that is deeply ingrained and is very difficult for any animal to control.
As far as containing yourself, I would ask your mom and dad for help, either teaching you on their own, or taking you to a dog training class. They need to teach you an alternate behavior to perform when the feline members of the family are around. When they’re not training, they need to set you up for success by keeping tight management.
The first step: Your humans need to determine the goal. That’s the best first step in any behavior modification plan. Do they want you and the kitties to be able to hang out in the same room at the same time with no conflict? Do they want you to leave the kitties alone if one or both of them happen to make an appearance? Do they just want to keep you from trying to find the “squeaker”?
Once your mom and dad determine their goals, they’ll then be able to decide which of the following steps would be best to take in helping you control yourself.
Management: Have them prevent you and the kitties from being around each other. We’re talking confinement to segregated areas: rooms, crates, inside or outside the house. Even having you wear a plastic basket muzzle in case you end up together can help prevent disaster. It doesn’t really do anything to change your behavior, but it can keep you from practicing behaviors they don’t like.
Training steps: As a professional dog trainer, I teach my clients that the first step of any new behavior is rewarding what you want. To read more about how your parents can use this form of positive reinforcement to coach you to reach your goals, visit my dog training blog.
Here are some ways to get them to use the rewarding-what-you-want approach to help you better co-exist with your kitty bother and sister:
» For leaving the kitties alone any and every time, they need to reward you with petting, praise and treats.
» If you decide that going toward kitties is still more fun, then they need to give you an alternate behavior, such as going to your doggy bed to perform a down-stay. Once you’re on your bed, they can reward you with petting, praise and treats.
» Teaching you to “Leave it!” for those times when going after felines is still more fun. The “Leave it” gets rewarded because you decided to leave the kitty alone and return to your mom and dad.
» A 10- to 20-second timeout if you’re still not listening might be an option — but only if they’ve already spent lots of time rewarding the desired goal behavior. Then you’ll know the better choice.
» Redirecting the instinctual behavior. They can give you a specific, legal dog toy with a squeaker to redirect your energy whenever the kitties are around and the mood strikes, but this might get you amped-up instead. Use this one with caution.
You’ll also want to make sure your guardians aren’t spending the majority of the time yelling at you in anger when the kitties are around. That just shows poor coping skills and frustration on their part. They need to be reminded that this type of behavior is quite normal for you. But, like all animals, you don’t want to start to associate “kitties = punishment.” The humans need to take some steps to help.
To help give you and your mom and dad another idea or two, check out this question I received from a kitty whose life was turned upside down by the family’s new overzealous puppy.
For a predator, being surrounded by animals that appear and often act as prey is a very tough test of wills. It sounds like you have some restraint — that, or the kitties are much faster than you.
Admitting that you have a problem is the best first step for gaining control, but developing a plan is the next necessary step for reaching your goal.
— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified pet dog trainer and dog behavior counselor. Her column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.