Help! My pets are driving me crazy

By Dr. Ian Kupkee, Veterinarian
Published On: Mar 19 2014 10:54:50 AM EDT
Updated On: Mar 19 2014 10:57:24 AM EDT

Some of the most frustrating problems our pets develop are are the ones that involve behavioral issues.  If you’ve ever lived with a dog who barks for no reason, or a cat that stops using the litterbox, you know exactly what I’m talking about!  While some unwanted behaviors can be explained by medical conditions, many stem from boredom or anxiety. 

Today’s pet parents work very hard.  We work long hours away from our pets, and spend a lot of our down time with  electronic devices that have nothing fun to offer our pets. Innovations that have made life more interesting for humans have made life more boring for our pets.  Boredom can drive our pets to seek out interesting activities that do not endear them to the typical American pet owner.  And boredom’s first cousin, anxiety, can create situations that result in pets being rehomed or sent to shelters. 

Until fairly recently, I never really saw the point of training non-working dogs to do anything other than obey the basic commands.  I had always owned dogs who were perfectly content to lie around and enjoy the good life.  Two years ago, Zohan came into our lives, and I began to change my tune.  Zohan is, quite frankly, the smartest dog I’ve ever had.  No, I’m not just saying that because he’s mine.  Our other dog Grendel, is adorable and sassy.  But in the brains department….well, let’s just say she’s very special and we love her to bits!  Zohan had mastered basic obedience by eight weeks of age.  I taught him how to step aside and allow his elderly sister to walk through doors ahead of him.  It took me about five minutes.  He struck as me as an empty vessel waiting to filled, and I felt bad that I couldn’t be bothered to put much into said vessel.  That being said, I didn’t see the point of teaching him silly tricks and games for kicks and grins.  As he grew into adolescence, however, I began to see some behaviors that caused concern.  Unlike the aptly named Grendel, who fears nothing, Zohan was afraid of everything.  The red bucket at the clinic, a friend’s Buddha statue, a neighbor quietly pulling the weeds from her lawn...these were just a few of the random things that struck terror into his heart.  When he started anxiously charging at other dogs, I knew it was time to get help.

Our pets don’t have to be exceptionally smart to benefit from cognitive enrichment.  And you don’t necessarily need to call in a professional, or wait until your pet starts having problems.  I believe that all pets want their lives to be interesting - it’s just a matter of degree.  Many unwanted behaviors in cats are rooted in boredom or stress.  Cat owners may want to consider wall-mounted shelves that the cat can walk along, or a bed that mounts to a closed window.  A bird feeder and some butterfly plants on the other side of the window can provide an all-day nature show.  Puzzle feeders are a great way to enrich  a cat’s mind, as she must figure out how to get the food, and is rewarded with the food when she succeeds.  This not only alleviates boredom, but can distract your kitty from anything in her environment that may be causing stress.  A simple Google search will yield lots of suggestions for ready made food puzzles, as well as instructions for making them at home.  While you’re at it, look for DVD’s designed to entertain cats.  These clever compilations of aquarium and wildlife scenes provide hours of enrichment for kitties that spend lots of time alone.  Any toy or activity that allows her to interact with you will always be greatly appreciated!  And if you think cats aren’t trainable, think again.  Many cats excel at trick training!

Food puzzles and brain teaser games are great fun for dogs as well.  Our dogs get a durable rubber Kong toy stuffed with healthy treats before we leave the house for work.  The secret to making it last all day is to freeze it!  They are often still working on it when we arrive home after 6pm.  Never underestimate the importance of a walk.  Your yard may be beautiful, but it is always the same, and therefore rather boring for a dog.  Walking exposes your dog to all sorts of interesting sights and smells.  If you have a purpose-bred dog, consider giving him the opportunity to do what he was bred to do.  Like most scent hounds, Grendel is a tracking champ, and loves to sniff out treats that we hide around the house.  A working dog may love agility, and there are even facilities where herding breeds can work with flocks of sheep.

With regards to Zohan, we decided he would be a good candidate for trick training.  Remember my earlier mention of teaching games and tricks for kicks and grins?  Yes, that’s what I’m doing with my dog!  After about an hour with Dee Hoult from Applause Your Paws, little Z had learned about a half dozen tricks, including how to push a target with his nose.  We spend about ten minutes per day running him through his repertoire, and while we still have some work to do, he seems less reactive and more balanced.  In new or frightening situations, his trick routines distract him from stressors and help him build confidence.  By encouraging behaviors he knows we like, we allow him to make choices and teach him to make good decisions.  And we can use those behaviors as building blocks to teach him how to cope with some of his fears.

During the last cold snap, we wrapped our orchid house with a large blue tarp - or as my wife soon nicknamed it, The Scary Blue Ghost.  As it rippled and flailed in the breeze, it sent young Zohan into a blind panic.  Using techniques we had learned from Dee, my wife encouraged him to look at her, rather than at the tarp.  She rewarded him each time he succeeded.  Once she had his undivided attention, she used the “target” command to encourage him to touch the tarp with his nose.  With that, The Scary Blue Ghost became a playmate in a game that was fun and empowering.  Time elapsed?  About four minutes.  No point in teaching tricks and games? Ok, I stand corrected.

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