Training your pets will improve your bond and YOUR life, while very likely saving THEIRS. Here’s how….

–By Courtney Wennerstrom, AAPP Director of Content

Let’s be honest. Pet parenting can be challenging. Just like human children, pets require a lot to be healthy and well-adjusted: a balanced diet, exercise, play, enrichment, mental stimulation, snuggles, grooming, veterinary care, and socialization. Whew–that’s a lot! If these basic needs are neglected, pets can easily become destructive, annoying, clingy, or difficult to manage. From whining, barking, jumping, and yowling–to chasing ankles, scratching or destroying furniture, digging, or urinating outside of the litter box or on the floor–animals can develop habits that stress us out.

If you are currently confronting a behavioral issue or two (or three!), it is perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed. So let’s start by acknowledging that you are not alone. And neither are your furry kiddos. In fact, all pets–especially kittens, puppies, or adult animals who have some trauma or are simply adjusting to a new home and new rules, routines, and expectations–need consistency, training, and a supportive environment to learn what we are asking of them. No matter where or how you got your baby, they all take dedication and patience. They also need a ton of time and attention. There is really no way around this. So let me reassure you: every one of us pet parents occasionally gets miffed by their slew of demands. Let’s not even get started on my sassy huskies and their constant howling and “opinions” 🙂 Or my ridiculous cats who lie and tell me they have never eaten, even once, in their entire lives. HA!

The good news, however, is that if you approach your pet’s behavioral issues with grace, intellectual curiosity, and a sense of adventure, you’ll soon discover that teaching them manners and giving them productive ways to express themselves is an extremely fun and satisfying way to bond. The even better news is that training may also save your pet’s life. If this sounds a tad dramatic…let me explain. Not only is it important for your dog to know how to “stay” in an emergency (you don’t want them darting into the street if their collar breaks, for instance), but you also need to be able to cohabitate with them in harmony so that you never, never want to let them go.

You have probably heard that right now, animal shelters across the United States are full to the brim with adoptable, healthy, adorable pets–and many will not make it out alive 🙁 Without enough resources, fosters, funding, or community support, far too many shelters are still faced with the agonizing reality of having to euthanize because they are beyond capacity. Despite our cultural love for pets, the situation for dedicated shelter workers and the wonderful pets in their care, is dire.

So, how does this unfolding tragedy of overcrowding in shelters relate to your furry family member?

Well, to be honest–I hope it never does.

But it could. Why? Because one of the most common reasons people relinquish their dogs, cats, and other pets to shelters in the first place is that they are at the end of their proverbial ropes with troublesome behavioral issues, and feel forced to give up. With so many people returning to their offices, increasing social engagements and obligations, and the demands of modern life, our pets–who have been with us 24/7 during the early part of the pandemic–are suffering from separation anxiety. And this can manifest in all sorts of destructive habits. In case you didn’t know, both cats and dogs (and probably many other species as well) experience separation anxiety, and helping them learn to be by themselves can seem insurmountable.

Behavioral problems are particularly daunting if you have tried several methods to fix them and nothing has clicked. In these cases, innocent pets too often find themselves sitting in a shelter, terrified and utterly confused as to what they have done wrong. And of course, they are never to blame. Their people then feel crushing guilt and a sense of failure since their family has been torn apart, and everyone loses…

But it doesn’t have to be this way…so please consider this your personalized pep-talk. Instead of feeling defeated, try to view your frustration as a wake-up call to action. Let’s get you and your pet back on track, right meow. After all–our furry babies are worth it!

*NOTE: if your pet is acting like a pawfect angel right now, this article is STILL for you because it is always best to start training BEFORE any issues arise, rather than waiting until they do. Proactively nipping bad behavior in the bud is way easier than reacting after the fact.

The Myth of A Better Home

First, I want to address a common misconception. When pets do things that drive us crazy, many humans understandably find themselves at a loss. One common assumption is that their pets might fare better in some “ideal” family or situation–say living on a farm or with a person who is home 24/7. Since not every pet is a good fit for every family, this is sometimes the case. But more often than not, YOU are already their “purrrfect” Cinderella-slipper-fit-parent because in their adoring eyes, you are already their favorite human who they know, love, and trust. Moreover, the world is not full of endless farmland or barns where animals can simply roam free. We have to teach them to be good citizens where they already live.

And the best news? The majority of behavioral issues can be fixed–or avoided altogether–with patience, creativity, expert support, and by following these 5 steps:

1) Make Sure the Unwanted Behavior Does Not Have a Medical Cause–You Might Be Surprised!

First, it is vital to ensure that your pet’s unwanted behavior–especially if it is new or strange–does not have a medical origin. Did you know, for instance, that cats who urinate outside of the litter box might not only have a urinary tract infection, but also a painful condition called Pandora Syndrome–a complex set of psychosomatic and physical symptoms caused by stress/ a dangerous lack of stimulation–that humans frequently misread as behavior problems? I address Pandora Syndrome at length in my EVERYTHING CAT Resource Guide to Feline Health, Behavior, and Nutrition.

Moreover, because they have an innate instinct to hide injuries and illnesses, cats’ medical issues frequently masquerade as behavioral problems. Read more here about signs to watch for that help you know when it might be time to see a veterinarian.

Similarly, people too often misinterpret their dogs’ medical problems as stubbornness, spite, or even a bad character. But animals are really not capable of malice, and a puppy or dog who becomes aggressive out of the blue is likely in pain. Jennifer Welch, writing for Live Science, explains the connection between a series of conditions and aggressive tendencies that come out of nowhere. Moreover, Danielle Hodges, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), reiterates that many people who are…

dealing with behavior issues in their pets that seemingly never get better, writ[e] off their pet as being untrainable or a lost cause. But they, and you, may be surprised to learn that there could actually be another culprit to blame for those truly stubborn behavior problems, namely an underlying health issue.

In short, any sudden change in demeanor /personality OR long term issues that do not resolve with positive-reinforcement training may signal that something is very wrong–so a trip to the veterinarian is a must.

2) Think of “Training” as Bonding Time Rather than “Work”

Provided you have been to the veterinarian and know for sure that you are dealing with an actual behavioral rather than medical problem, you will need to do some training. And if you have been doing training already and it has been ineffective, you will need to try a different methodology.

First, let’s address your attitude towards this process. To me, the word training has a tedious connotation–and sounds like a lot of hard, boring labor. In reality, training is just another way of saying that you are going to teach your pet new ways to solve challenges; give them healthy ways of interacting with others; reassure them that they can be alone or more independent; or show them how to perform tricks. Training is a fantastic way to learn more about who your pet is (preferences, fears, likes, and loves) and bond with them.

Why? Well, animals are smart, social, and they live to please us. Seriously–they love to learn new forms of communicating with us–which is exactly why they are the actual best! Training is really just a kind of communication that stimulates you and your pet’s minds and should be enjoyable for both parties. And it is good to be super curious about it. I mean, what would be possible if you thought about training as a creative and interactive project? If you have children or other relatives in your home, get them involved, too. Training/bonding sessions ensure that your entire family learns how to talk to your pet in a way they understand–while bringing everyone in your household closer together.

Because there are so many conflicting theories on training available, it is ideal to seek professional help. Whether you choose to visit a veterinary behaviorist, hire a one-on-one trainer, attend classes, or find resources online, make sure that any methods you use are never aversive–ie; do not take advice from anyone who believes a) that animals learn from pain, fear, or stress; or b) that animals need to be “dominated into submission” or “taught who is the alpha”. These dangerous and now widely debunked schools of thought have been scientifically proven to do more harm than good. As Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Steve Dale explains, punishment-based training erodes the human-animal bond, traumatizes your pet, and undoes all of the intimacy that good training creates.

In other words, you want to look for professionals who use positive reinforcement methods. Award-winning author Zazie Todd, PhD, offers fantastic advice for choosing a good trainer on her blog called Companion Animal Psychology.

You can also find innovative leaders like BIllie Groom, who practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for dogs, which recognizes that all dogs are individuals. Groom’s work is particularly meaningful when other methodologies have failed. Stay tuned for her upcoming interview–Episode 5–on my podcast called The PETestal: On the Human-Animal Bond–where she will explain how CBT for dogs (who are at least 6 months of age) works to empower you and your dog.

3) Enrich Your Pet’s Environment

If you were locked in your house for an extended period of time with no internet, television, movies, books, games, exercise equipment, or the ability to do your hobbies, you would likely lose your flipping mind. This is how our pets feel when we don’t give them fun things to do. Just like us, they need mental and physical stimulation, including new smells, toys, treats, exercise, and other challenges to keep them engaged, healthy, well-behaved, and active. Above all, they need to be able to express species-specific behaviors that come naturally to them.

As I mentioned earlier, cats in dull environments can become seriously ill–and worse, their symptoms are too often misinterpreted as spiteful or as purposely acting out. It is our job to help replicate a world where they can express their natural desires to chase and pounce on prey, sniff unfamiliar smells, climb up high, and use their minds. Doing so is called enrichment. And as a parent of 4 rambunctious animals, I can attest to the fact that finding clever ways to entertain them is really a delight.

Enrichment for both dogs and cats can include things like puzzle toys, snuffle mats and nosework, cat trees and high-up shelving, hide and seek games, pupsicles, agility training, obstacle courses, and more. And the best part is that amusing your kids doesn’t have to cost a paw and a tail. The ASPCA has wonderful, inexpensive DYI tips for your feline and canine friends. One thing I like to do with Sasha and Saint when it snows, for instance, is to throw some treats into our yard for them to sniff out of the cold white fluff. The deeper the snow, the more challenging it is–and since they are huskies, they absolutely love this activity. And it costs nothing more than the handful of treats my spoiled puppers would already get anyways. 🙂 In the summer, I fill Tupperware bowls with various little treats, unsalted bone broth, and water– and freeze everything together until it is a delicious, solid ice cube. It takes at least 30 minutes for my dogs to lick and dig out their treats. And again, it is super easy on the pocketbook.

In my Everything Cat Resource Guide that I mention above, you can find even more ideas for your felines. If you are feeling particularly frisky, I highly recommend Space Cat Academy–which offers all kinds of thoughtful, creative courses for taking your cats on adventures! Christine Caplan, writing for Dog People, offers some more some cool ideas for dogs here.

The point is–when it comes to spicing up your pet’s life, the only limitation is your imagination!

4) Work Your Pet’s Enrichment, Exercise, and Play into Your Hectic Schedule for an Adventurous Lifestyle

There is so much new research coming out all the time about the countless and surprising ways that pets boost our mental, physical, and social well being. They literally keep us active, sane, grounded, and connected. They are even better social lubricants than alcohol! And pets are understandably better companions if they get enough exercise and socialization, too. So it just makes sense for us to spend as much time together as possible.

Now that the world is opening up again, our schedules are increasingly frenzied. So if you are struggling to find time for your pets, try incorporating them into your daily routines and social activities! Provided your dogs are social butterflies and the weather permits, meet your friends at a canine-friendly restaurant and take a jaunt afterwards while talking. When I was teaching at IU in Bloomington, Indiana, for example, I used to leash up my dogs, Maddie and Kodiac (who I have since lost to old age 🙁 ) and we would walk to all kinds of fun events in the city square. I used to take them to evening film screenings with my students–to the utter delight of my students and my dogs–and even (with permission, of course) bring them to parties at fellow grad students’ houses. I do similar things now with Sasha and Saint. My canine sidekicks (past and present) and I are always up to some kind of shenanigans!

It’s fun to try different things–perhaps a playdate with your friends and their dogs (and human kiddos, too) so you can relax with a cocktail or mocktail while they run around like maniacs. Or have your cat-loving family or friends over for dinner and give them toys to amuse your kitties. You can even harness-train your cats and take them on walks (see Space Cat Academy above)! Take your fun-loving pets on vacation. There are so many options.

Take the inspiring Dennis Walters, as a case in point. A pioneer in adaptive golf, he learned to continue to play his favorite game despite an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. And he brings his rescue dog, Gus, with him on the course and has even taught him to use a golf club!

Truly, the sky is the limit!

Side note: Get excited because Dennis is on this season of the PETestal, too.

In short, life is just better when we share it with our animals.

5) Consider Sharing Your Pets

Speaking of which, if you cannot fit your pets into your schedule, it is perfectly okay–and even lovely–to ask for help. While that may seem crazy, hear me out. A lot of us have neighbors, relatives, colleagues, or friends who love pets but cannot have their own due to housing restrictions, traveling for work, medical conditions, financial limitations, or other insurmountable obstacles. But they may be able to offer their time to enrich your pet’s life while getting their dog or cat fix at the same time.. Maybe you know a runner who would occasionally like a canine partner or someone who works from home who would like to “borrow” your dog or cat sit while you’re away all day. Read more about the beauty of sharing our pets here.

Your community is likely more willing to step up for your pets than you ever imagined! Just ask 🙂
NOW LET’S GO DO THE THING–BOND WITH YOUR PETS AND THE JOY WILL FOLLOW!

Further Reading: