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Living with Pets Part 2: How to Teach Pets House Rules



Is it too much to ask our beloved pets to follow just a few house rules? I mean not ridiculous rules like, in exchange for free room and board, please have the house cleaned, the laundry folded, and dinner on the stove when I get home, but simple boundary rules, like, hey, Fido and Fluffy, would you please not chew up the throw pillows, sharpen your claws on the rug, eat food off the table, dig up the freshly planted begonia bed, or bark at the grass for being grass?


Is that so unreasonable?


I ask because Luke, our 50-pound rescue hound who turns three this week, and I see this differently. My husband and I got Luke (aka Luclear War, the Lukinator, MarmaLuke, Lukamotion) when he was a 14-month-old mass of untrained, anxious canine energy. He’s come a long way. Today, he follows basic commands, if briefly, and has learned a few manners, like waiting until I’ve moved my hand before diving into his food bowl. I say, we still have work to do. He says, we’re good.


For instance, though he knows better, the minute we leave the house, Luke makes himself comfortable on the down-filled back of the sofa. Does he think we don’t notice the crater-like impression he leaves? And the other night, he stealthily wiped out a plate of lemon squares sitting on the kitchen counter. (He thoughtfully removed the plastic wrap first.)


To help mediate, I called Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a veterinarian and professor at Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine, who specializes in animal behavior. She has seen it all. Beaver makes it her job to bridge the communication gaps between animals and their owners, so both are happier at home.


“We can’t look at animals as four-legged people,” Beaver said. “Animals have needs and drives all their own.”


“That’s for sure: Luke needs to push the limits, and drives us bananas.”


“Because we can’t ask them, our job is to think about why they are behaving a certain way from their perspective.” Once you know why, manage the environment. Either block access, or make the environment mildly punishing or obnoxious to discourage them, then offer an acceptable alternative.


Cats, for instance, have evolved over eons to seek out high perches to better see predators and prey. So they are going to jump on tables, counters and the top of your refrigerator. You can’t change their instincts, but you can teach them that some landing spots are more acceptable than others.


If you don’t want your cat on the dining room table, put two-sided sticky tape on the table. “When the cat jumps up, he will go ‘yuck, yuck, yuck,’ and not want to do that again.”


Here are more ways Dr. Beaver said we could discourage unwelcome pet behaviors at home.

· Problem: The minute I leave the house, my dog gets on the sofa.

Solution: Make the furniture unwelcoming. Put upside down kitchen chairs on the sofa. Cover it with books or plastic wrap. Running aluminum foil across the furniture works to keeps Luke off, though it makes the house look as if it’s sending satellite signals to far-off galaxies. Place a comfortable pet bed near the sofa and to “add value” toss some of your dirty clothes on it. “Something with lots of your people smell.”

· Problem: My cat is scratching up our upholstered chairs.

Solution: Cats have to scratch. The best you can do is help them express that urge on acceptable objects. To keep them from tearing up your chair, cover it in plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Then bring in scratching posts that offer both vertical and horizontal surfaces. Keep trying until you find what your cat likes. “Just because you want them to use something doesn’t mean they will,” Beaver said. “They’re the ultimate consumer.”

· Problem: My dog barks a lot when we’re not home.

Solution: Set up a web cam so you can watch what triggers the behavior. If the dog barks when someone walks by, that’s normal. If you have a boredom barker, a citronella collar can work. They bark and get poofed. When you’re home and the dog barks for no good reason, don’t yell, “Fido, stop barking!” That rewards the behavior. Instead, divert them. Knock on a counter or the wall. When they look and are quiet for a couple seconds, reward them. Gradually wait longer, rewarding after three seconds, then five.

· Problem: How do I get my dog to quit digging in the yard?

Solution: Dogs dig for many reasons. Where they dig can tell you why. If they dig by a fence, look at what’s happening on the other side. Take them there and let them explore. If they dig in the middle of the yard, you might have critters underground you need to eradicate. If they are digging a shallow hole in a shady flower bed, they are likely trying to cool down. Some are just bored. For persistent diggers, consider making a digging hole. Border off an area where they can dig. Hide treats or toys there just below the surface, and teach them that’s where they dig.

· Problem: My pet is fine when I’m home, but falls apart when I’m gone.

Solution: To minimize mischief, leave a TV or radio on when you’re gone, along with food toys. Fill a Kong with a mix of hard food and peanut butter or cream cheese and freeze the filled toy so it takes longer to empty. For cats, get toys that trigger their prey instinct. While, as a home design columnist, I cannot recommend the artificial mice you can drop around the house, I will leave that between you and your cat. Remember, the best-behaved pet is a tired one.

· Problem: My pet eats food off the table or counter.

Solution: Simple. Don’t leave food out unattended. Often, it’s not pets who need training, it’s their humans.


Photo caption: My dog Luke, is trying, not always successfully, to resist temptation.

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