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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Change just one thing - how to improve behavior in baby steps

When ever I see a behavior consult at my office, I know my clients want immediate improvement. .  While many people understand it will take time for the problems  to be  better, there is a need for immediate improvement..  It is possible to see improved behavior by  changing just one thing with your pet.   No, it won't be the entire solution,  and there will be some undesired behaviors going on.  Yet the intensity and frequency of the problem behavior can be decreased with some simple first steps.
Audie and Carol  - One of my first behavior cases

 To  improve behavior one must have an accurate diagnosis of the problem(s)  and address all of them.  Now that is pretty daunting.  It takes time in the consult, watching video, drawing floor plans to have a full understanding of the problem and provide a comprehensive solution.  You can hear some clients sigh in despair of how complicated this may be.  I have learned the importance of focusing improvement on the most disruptive or dangerous ( biting for example) behavior first, so a behavior modification plan can be as direct and simple as possible.

For our pet's behavior to change, we have to change.  There lies  the difficulty.  Many of us are resistant to change.  And what will change look like or mean to the other aspects of our life?  Breaking change down to baby steps that have the greatest effect is the easiest way to improve behavior.  There is often many more than one thing on our behavior plans, but I have found that asking the clients to do one thing first and work on just that the first few days will often improve life that they can then do more.

Here are a few baby steps to start with that can make some immediate change:
1.   Stop using punishers
no more  spray bottles, ultrasonic collars, yelling at your dogs or throwing pillows,  or grabbing the neck of  your cat!   Anxiety increases  and these techniques rarely  work to improve behavior.  If you stop the punishers,   many pets will be  less fearful and reduce their growling, lunging or fighting.

2.  Have your pet behave nice to get any kind of food.  Cats included.
Bella gets food for just standing nice
 No more food out of the bowl!   Now they will get a kibble or 2 for just standing, sitting or laying in their bed quietly.  Or better yet, coming when called, attaching a leash, walking at your side or laying on their perch.   This is like catching them being good ( or not bad).  When your pet is earning their meals they get the idea quickly that better behavior means more food.  When they are not acting good -no food, no attention.

3.  Increased exercise for dogs and cats
  This means play in the yard with a human - throwing a ball, Frisbee or what ever.  Or walking your dog  on leash outside of your yard.  Walks for dog need to be about 1 minute per pound per day as a dose.  Cats really need humans to play with them!!!  They need to kill something every day so get those toys on a stick, a laser light, catnip ball, the ring from the milk jug to toss and make them move.  Play increases the bond with you and raises calming brain chemicals.
Butterscotch loved his walks! 

4. Start the appropriate drug/supplement/diet  as recommended by your veterinarian.
 The proper drug or supplement helps them learn.  It helps adjust the brain chemical balance that literally opens up learning pathways in the brain so please do not refuse medication!  It is like getting glasses when you are near sighted - now you can learn so much easier.  

5.  Chart how often your pet is doing the bad behavior and in what circumstances.
Data is helpful.   Keeping track  can increase every one's  awareness of the problem, show what the triggers are, and really help with accurate diagnosis.  Now you can start to help yourself by avoiding triggers or situations.

Some people feel that only  the pet has to change  - that the humans should not have to do anything different.  Your pet is responding with their behavior to the home they live in. This   includes everything from how all the humans come and go as well as other pets.  There is something about life from your pet's point of view,  that is stimulating the behavior.  So if you don't change, how can your pet change ?  
giving a reward through the muzzle makes treatment much easier

Think about what is in it for you to change and get better pet behavior.  If a 10 minute walk for your dog decreases how much destructive chewing they do daily, and gives you some fun time with your pet is that worth it for you?  Is getting the cat toys out and tossing them around or getting your cat to follow you around the house for more exercise worth not cleaning up urine around the house?   It may seem unconnected to you, but these little things can make a huge difference.

Keeping it simple also means trying it for just a week and see how it works.    Just give the first step a  try and monitor what improvements develop. It's like decluttering a home.  It did not happen in  one day - even after a huge tornado it takes some days to clean up.  Pets that suddenly erupt with behavior problems will take time to be  better but small steps do improve things.
food puzzles are fun for cats too

Lastly, what is the level of behavior that is acceptable to you in your home?  All dogs don't need to overcome their fears of strangers to the point of running up to everyone to be a happy, safe and well behaved dog.  In my home my dog barks readily at noises outside, people at the door and is wary of unknown people.  In some ways I actually like that.  It makes her  a good watch dog for my home and my daughter.  She is not aggressive and will warm up to people after she has some time with them. Yes it is irritating, but the reality is that she is always vigilant and that increases our security.  Your dog or cat does not have to get an A in training to be a good pet.  A C grade may be good enough for you.
Thanks and good luck!
It's ok with me to let Ranger play with boxes a bit