Penny A. Watkins-Zdrojewski
© March 2014
A lot of the work I do with pets focuses on behavior or health issues. Because health and behavior or inseparable, training always is a part of the equation. So I look at how well a dog or cat listens and can follow simple directions. A pet who is able to cooperate can more easily learn new behaviors or accept various procedures. Here are some tips you can use with your pet, whether just starting with a puppy or kitten, or retraining a pet who has lived with you for a long time.
These tips work for both dogs and cats. You can’t train a cat you say? Well, yes, it can be done. It may take a little more patience, but the process is very similar to training a dog or any other mammal. While cats tend to be more independent, at heart they want to live in harmony with you and please you.
My goal with any kind of training or work is to help an animal to be cooperative, not submissive. Rather than being an “alpha,” I prefer to be a good leader, who has happy, confident companions and followers. Most obedience training talks about giving commands. I prefer the term directions, which suggests cooperation.
Use a Soft Voice
When giving directions, speak in a normal voice, including normal tone and volume, or soften your voice more than usual. Dogs and cats have excellent hearing and don’t need to be shouted at. Test this by standing some distance away and offering something they really like in a very soft voice. You’ll likely find that they pay more attention than if you’d spoken loudly or harshly.
Give Them a Choice
Giving your pet a chance to make the right choice improves their learning and makes them more likely to provide the desired behavior in the future.
When giving a direction, give your pet a chance to follow it, as well as a chance to make the right choice.
Say what you want only one time and wait for your pet to figure it out.
When you continually repeat a direction, “Sit, sit, sit,” for instance, you are actually teaching your pet to not follow the direction until they have heard it several times.
If they have the opportunity to make the choice and don’t make the right one, gently correct them, make sure you have their attention, and repeat the direction, saying it only one time.
Keep Directions Simple
A single word can be used for many situations. For instance, my husband and I use “off” to let our dogs know that they need to stop doing whatever they are doing right now — picking up or eating something they shouldn’t, jumping up, starting to play rough with each other, and a multitude of other undesired activities. When they hear “off,” they know they need to stop and listen. After stopping an undesired behavior, remember to direct your pet to a desired behavior, so they know what they should be doing and don’t return to the unwanted activity.
For more information on this principle, called redirection, see my article, “Train for What You Want,” http://www.fourhappypawz.com/train-for-what-you-want.htm.
Each step of an action should have its own direction. For instance, “sit” and “down” are two, separate behaviors, and should not be combined. “Sit down” can be confusing to your pet — should he sit or lay down? Which do you really want?
The Most Important Directions
I believe that a few directions and their associated verbal and physical cues are the most important things you can teach your pet. These are: Wait; Off; Sit; and Down.
Additional directions are gravy, and enrich the meat of the work you and your pet are doing together.
Keep Things Positive
Always praise your pet for doing the right thing, and never punish them for mistakes. It’s okay to correct, but not punish. Punishment can lead to fear, defiance, and a host of other problems that may take years to change.
Use the same verbal and physical cues each time you give a direction. Ensure that everyone in your house is using them as well. Expect your pet to follow a direction every time you give it, and help them to make the right choice if they do not.
Make Training Fun
Enjoy the time you are spending with your pet. Keep training sessions short, no more than 5 minutes for young animals and 15 minutes for adult pets. Find activities and use reinforcers (positive motivators, like a toy or treat) that make both you and your pet happy.
Whether you are just starting to train your pet, or want to start or reinforce directions with a pet you’ve already trained, applying these basic concepts can help you have a cooperative, happy pet and reduce stress in your home.
For help and additional tips, contact Penny at Happy PAWZ for a free, 20-minute consultation.