Fixing Your Pet’s Behaviour Issue Can Be a Long Road

But don’t despair. Help is out there, and every small step gets you closer to resolution and to more fun adventures with your pet.

A Novia Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever and a Jack Russell sit andlook down a wooden path through beautiful forest
Photo: dezy/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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In a recent podcast with Daniel Mills, I talked about how I came to dogs late in life. I was a cat person first. Now, of course, I love both dogs and cats, and have lived with both for many years. But it led me to reflect on the journey I’ve come on since a dog first came into my life—and the journeys we all take with our pets, especially if they have a behaviour issue.

For me, I never imagined, when I finally got a dog, that it would lead me down a path of blogging, becoming a dog trainer, and ultimately writing a book (Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy).

I know I’m not the only one who got a dog with behaviour issues and ultimately became a dog trainer. I think it’s wonderful when people learn more about their pet in order to help them, and for trainers it can help them understand their clients better too because they know what it feels like to deal with those problems.

Just because you have a pet with behaviour issues doesn’t mean you have to become a professional dog trainer or cat behaviourist. 

But what it does mean is that you’re embarking on a new direction to figure out what can be done about those issues. If you keep going as you are, things will stay the same or—more likely—get worse.

If your dog or cat has a behaviour problem, it’s better to do something about it sooner rather than later, before a fear gets worse, a bad behaviour becomes ingrained, or a medical issue lacks treatment.

You may take wrong turns as you try to fix your pet's behaviour

Of course, we all want a quick fix. Sometimes there are quick fixes. No, I don’t mean ones involving electronic collars or other aversive methods; they aren’t a quick fix but a risk to dog’s welfare according to the research, and also less effective (see: seven reasons to use reward-based dog training methods). 

Quick fixes are often of the management or enrichment variety. 

For example, your dog’s counter-surfing issues stem from food being available on the kitchen countertop or in the trash, and once you keep the counter clear and lock up the trash, the problem is solved (so long as you’re strict with the new rules). 

Or your cat is waking you up at night because they are bored and want to play, and making time for twice-daily sessions with a wand toy makes a big difference.

Quick fixes can also be of the veterinary variety if there’s something wrong with your pet and once it’s resolved, so is the behaviour issue. (Though sometimes vet work and behavioural work is needed together.  Then it’s not so quick).

You’ll learn about your pet along the way

The thing is, we can’t assume we’ll get a quick fix. Many issues take time to work through and resolve. It’s only natural because we’re dealing with real live breathing animals, not robots, so we have to take their needs into account and we’re working on biological time.

And not only that, but it’s not just your pet’s behaviour that needs to change. Most likely you (and your family members) will have to make some tweaks to the way you’ve been interacting with your dog or cat.

Once you realize this, you can take some time to enjoy the journey. Try to appreciate the opportunity to learn more about your pet and how animals learn, and to improve your own training skills and handling technique. 

Even if it’s a hard issue to deal with, you can take some pride in knowing that you are doing your best for your pet. Of course it takes time, but you’ll get there.

Two kittens climb a bookshelf
Photo: Impact Photography/Shutterstock

Every pet’s journey is different

The thing about behaviour issues is that there can be a lot of contributing factors, and they aren’t all under your control. Genetics, early life experiences, socialization, and simply having bad things happen, can all affect your pet’s behaviour.

What this means is that even for the same issue, some dogs or cats will improve more quickly than others. 

If you chose a breeder carefully, your dog was well socialized as a puppy and you took them to a great puppy class, and everyone in the household is on the same page, then the balance of probabilities is that it will be easier to resolve the issue.

On the other hand, if you didn’t or couldn’t do much socialization—perhaps because you got the puppy during a pandemic—then you might have a bit more work to do now. 

And if some members of your household are not as committed to resolving the issue as you are (or are not even trying to stick to the behaviour plan) then it’s going to be rather more difficult. In this case, try to persuade them that you’re all on the same road, and you’ll get to the destination much more quickly if you stick together and follow the plan.

Taking wrong turns

Unfortunately dog training is not regulated, and even well known dog training books can have some incorrect advice in them, so it’s easy to make mistakes.  Unfortunately, aversive methods have risks including fear, anxiety, aggression, and a worse relationship with the owner.

But if you’ve been using aversive methods like shock or prong collars, leash corrections, or yelling at your dog, or squirting your cat with water, remember it’s not a one-way road; you can do a U-turn and find someone to help you learn how to use reward-based methods instead. 

Always choose a dog trainer with care and make sure they will only use reward-based methods.  

The training tools you will need are positive reinforcement and, in some cases, desensitization and/or counter-conditioning. (And you can also train your cat, for example train them to go in a cat carrier).

Sometimes, your veterinarian may recommend medication too.

What’s your destination?

One of the hard things about having a pet with a behaviour issue is coming to the realization that your life with your pet may not be how you imagined it when you got them.

Sometimes it will be, of course; some issues will be resolved and things can be exactly as you planned, or perhaps even better given that you’ve now taken the time to learn all about your pet and their behaviour. You will be better equipped to meet their needs for exercise, enrichment, and companionship, and you'll have a better training technique, and everyone will be happier as a result.

Some serious behaviour issues take a long time to resolve; separation-related issues, for example, or fear or aggression. The trainer, behaviourist, or veterinary behaviourist you are working with will help you be realistic about how things will likely progress.

In some cases you might find that you make great strides but never fully resolve the issue. In this case, your destination is not what you hoped it would be—but often it will be perfectly fine. If you have to incorporate management into your life, make it a habit so that you don’t have mishaps, and seek out support when it’s needed. Often, simply knowing that others are in the same boat can help. 

Of course, for some people, the end of the road will be a difficult decision about re-homing or euthanizing the pet. If you think you’re heading this way, never make a decision in the heat of the moment; take your time and seek out expert advice. 

The good news about behaviour issues

The good news is that most behaviour issues are relatively minor and relatively easy to solve once you know what to do. That’s not to say that things like jumping up, pulling on leash, or (in the case of cats) attacking your feet aren’t annoying. 

But for most people, doing things like getting a no-pull harness, training your pet, and making time for daily play sessions or other enrichment is just part of the territory of being a dog or cat guardian. These aren’t milestones to rush by; they are fun or essential stops along the way as you and your pet journey through life.

Taking the time to learn about dog or cat behaviour can be interesting and enjoyable, and make you better equipped to resolve any issues that arise.

If you’re prepared for this when you start out, it makes the journey much easier.

If you liked this post, you'll love my new book, Bark! The Science of Helping Your Anxious, Fearful, or Reactive Dog which is available for pre-order now. Karen Fine DVM, author of the NYT-bestseller The Other Family Doctor, says “Bark! should be required reading for every veterinarian and anyone who loves an anxious, fearful, or reactive dog.”

And you'll find lots of tips for preventing and resolving behaviour issues in my books Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy.

Where are you at with your pet right now? 

If you liked this post, you might also like 8 tips for dealing with a pet with behavioral issues and why dogs with behavior problems deserve compassion (both on Psychology Today).

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