COMPANION ANIMAL BEHAVIOR PROGRAM
School of Veterinary Medicine
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN BRINGING HOME A NEW PET
Understanding Your Animal's Behavior
Preventing Behavior Problems
Once you have selected the pet you feel will fit your household, knowledge of that animal's normal behaviors can help you avoid behavior problems. Behavior problems such as urine-marking or fear of children are actually a natural part of the instinctual behavior of the animal. Many of what we humans see as behavior problems of our pets is really normal behaviors for that species, but the behavior may be inappropriate for living closely with people. Knowing what to expect and what is normal for the animal will help you guide your animal into behaviors that are acceptable to you before behavior problems arise.
Table of Contents
Dogs, like many social species, organize their social interactions, in part, through relationships that include all those they live with, both dogs and humans. But the communication between people and dogs is often confusing to both parties. Humans often do not understand the subtleness of a dog’s body language, and the dog may misinterpret a human’s body posture as threatening, such as when a person leans directly over a dog.
Since the dog's perception of a family member's interactions may influence both the response to commands and his potential for aggression, a dog may only follow the command of a family member who interacts with the dog in a fair, kind, and consistent manner . If there is any question about the humaneness or consistency of the interactions, the dog may display aggression, since that is all that humans may respond to. This could be by snarling or growling when you make the dog do something it doesn't want to do (such as get off the sofa) or by disregarding your commands. If this miscommunication continues, the conflict may escalate to the dog trying to bite.
Your leadership role should be reinforced regularly by you setting the schedule for food and attention rather than just giving these when the dog asks for them. Another manner in which to be a leader is to not use punishment when interacting with your dog, especially since it is often done inconsistently. Such punishment-based techniques include “alpha rollovers” and pinning the dog down. By interacting consistently and humanely with your dog, it sets up a dependable manner in which humans can interact with their dogs. This concept of ‘Nothing in Life is Free’ is an important leadership exercise.
All resources, including, food, treats, exercise, play, and attention can be given as long as the dog performs a command first. Dogs can then receive rewards and praise for doing so. Again, leadership should not be attempted by force or physical means. Establishing leadership is usually relatively easy if you are starting with a puppy. If your dog does begin to show aggression towards you at any point, you should seek the advice of a veterinarian or other behavior specialist. You speak different languages and may not understand each other, so don't assume your dog won't seriously hurt you.
When you first bring the crate home, it is important to place it in an area that is appropriate. An ideal location initially would be in an area where the family spends most of their time, such as a family room. It should not be in a highly trafficked area, but not isolated in the back of a room, either.
Once the location has been selected, the next step is to make it a positive object to the puppy. Initially, you should reward your pet with treats and praise for even approaching the crate and sniffing it. Curious puppies do not usually have a problem with this, but if your puppy is reluctant, do not force him or her to go near the crate, as this will likely cause them to be anxious or afraid. Leave the door open at all times for this introductory period. You can place a soft bed, toys, and treats to lure your puppy inside the crate, and always reward any decision made by him or her to go inside. Once he or she enters the crate and stays inside the crate (either by your commands or his or her choice), you can continue to give treats and praise at frequent intervals for the duration of time he or she stays. This can best be accomplished by placing a long-lasting treat, such as a stuffed Kong, inside. Depending on the personality of your puppy, this may happen right away, or it might several days. It is best to work in short intervals of 10-15 minutes at a time, several times a day until your puppy feels comfortable with the crate.
When your puppy is happy to enter his or her crate on their own, and remain in the crate a period of time, you can begin closing the door while you are present. Initially, you should only close the door (slowly) for a second, without latching it, open it right back up, and give treats and praise as long as your pet does not whine, bark, or paw at the door. If this occurs, you can try only shutting the door part way and opening it back up. Continue to lengthen the time to door is closed and latched very gradually (one second, five seconds, ten seconds, 30 seconds, one minute, etc), and keep in mind that it is important to always begin at a level that does not elicit a negative response from your puppy, since you do not want to create a negative association, or reward bad behavior. If your puppy becomes anxious or begins barking or pawing at the door, do not reprimand him or her, but instead avoid attention (eye contact, talking to him or her, etc), and wait for the behavior to stop. When it stops, even for a second, you should open the door to reward the good behavior, but do not shower the pet in praise. Stop the session, and allow the puppy to play independently. At this stage, you should not leave the crate when the door is shut.
Once you are able to reliably keep the door shut and latched without any whining, pawing, or barking, you can begin gradually leaving the crate. Initially, take only one step back, then return with a treat and reward good behavior immediately. Continue to spend several short sessions increasing the distance away until your puppy is able to spend 30 minutes or longer in the crate by her or himself. It is important to leave treats and toys in the crate to continue to reinforce the positive behavior.
Be sure to leave the door open during the times your puppy is not crated so that he or she may go in there whenever he or she pleases. Also, do not ever give your dog a “time out” or punish them by placing them in their crate, since it may create negative associations with their “safe place”. Instead, use a bathroom or some other room for this purpose.
Begin by taking your puppy outside every 30 minutes to the area you would like him or her go in the future. You can use a command such as “potty”, and when he or she urinates or defecates, give them verbal praise immediately and give them a treat as soon as they are finished. If he or she does not urinate or defecate, take them back inside but do not give him or her a treat. You can gradually increase the length of time between each bathroom break if you are successful at the 30 minute intervals, but every 1-2 hours at least while your puppy is less than 4 months of age, will help prevent accidents in the house.
It is important to keep an eye on your pet at all times while they are inside the home. If your puppy urinates or defecates inside and you are not there to stop it while it is happening, you have lost the opportunity to correct the behavior. Typically, puppies will begin sniffing around before they urinate or defecate. If you notice this, take them directly outside to their potty spot. If you miss these subtle cues, but catch your pet in the middle of the act, you can clap your hands loudly, say a firm “No”, or throw a soft object near him or her (not directly at the pet) for distraction, but do not continue to discipline him in any other way. Instead, pick your puppy up (do not drag), take him or her directly outside, and reward him or her with treats and praise if he or she finishes outside in their designated potty area. If you find a mess inside the house that you did not directly witness, do not call your dog over and rub your pet’s face in it, yell, or physically punish your pet, since he or she is not able to make the association that you are disciplining them for a past behavior. Instead, he or she will be reluctant to come to you in the future, and might even be more fearful to eliminate in your presence, even outside.
Once your puppy is crate trained, house training becomes much easier. If the crate is an appropriate size, you can leave him or her in the crate when you leave for short periods of time, and he or she will be less likely to urinate or defecate while you are gone. Puppies up to six months should still be let outside every four hours if possible, and generally, eight hours is the upper limit of most dogs’ limit. Regressions will occur, but depending on the age you acquire your puppy, and when you begin house training, your puppy should be fairly reliable by six months of age. Consult your veterinarian if you have any questions or concerns, as a variety of medical conditions can also be present and slowing the house training process as well.
Before picking a trainer, you need to sit in on a class before deciding. Trainers will have different approaches and you may decide one method is more appealing to you and your dog's personality. Training should focus on positive reinforcement. A group setting can also provide a chance to socialize your dog to new people and dogs in an unfamiliar setting.
Puppies need to be exposed to as many things during its first few weeks of life so that they learn how to appropriately interact and communicate with other dogs and people, as well as to decrease the fear of dogs, people, and inanimate objects. This does not mean an older dog cannot be socialized, but the process may take more time and may move more slowly. Socialization is vital to help prevent interdog aggression, so that they may learn the appropriate responses to other dogs in a variety of situations. Socialization should be started as early as is safe and maintained throughout the dog's life. The primary socialization period for other dogs and people are slightly different, but there is a lot of overlap between the two. The age range of this period is between 3 and 12-14 weeks. This means that as soon as your puppy gets its first set of vaccines, it is important and safe to begin interacting with other healthy dogs and puppies, and people with varied appearances (e.g., male, female, big, little, varied complexions, bearded, children).
Get your puppy used to other new situations. Situations that the dog will need to be able to handle later in life include: riding in the car, getting bathed or going to the groomers, hearing the vacuum cleaner running, and being touched all over the body (including the paws, in the ears, in the mouth - see basic care section page), or anything you expect the dog to be exposed to later in life.
A large concern for new puppy owners is not providing adequate socialization in order to prevent them from contracting infectious diseases from other dogs. While illness is a valid concern, as long as owners are thoughtful about which places they take their pets, it is often not as large of an issue as some might imagine it to be. The main thing to keep in mind is to avoid areas where many unfamiliar dogs visit, as this leaves them susceptible to acquiring diseases. Respiratory diseases such as Bordatella (or ‘kennel cough’) can be transmitted with face-to-face contact. Contact with other dogs or their fecal material leaves your dog susceptible to intestinal parasites such as roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms. Fleas can be transmitted from close contact with other cats and dogs, so flea preventative is also a topic to discuss with your veterinarian during the initial puppy visits to see if it is right for your pet. Perhaps the most severe are gastrointestinal diseases such as parvovirus. These can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea, and dehydration, so any of these signs should be addressed with your veterinarian immediately. Of course, this is only a brief overview. Please speak with your veterinarian if you have any questions or concerns about your puppy’s health.
As you can see, there are many reasons to be cautious, but it is important to keep in mind that as long as your puppy has his or her first wellness visit and first set of vaccines administered by a veterinarian, they will likely do fine in a controlled environment where you know the other dogs coming in contact with your pet are also healthy and vaccinated. As we mentioned earlier, socialization is very important, and another aspect of a happy, well-adjusted puppy. Kindergarten puppy classes are highly recommended for socialization and basic obedience, as long as the class requires at least one set of vaccinations from all participants. Another way to safely allow your puppy to interact with other dogs is to have friends' or neighbors' dogs come over to visit your puppy, so long as you know the other dogs are healthy and fully vaccinated Places to avoid are dog parks, pet stores, or any location where there will be puppies or adults of unknown health and vaccination status.
An adult dog can get used to these new situations as well, but once the dog has learned to be fearful or have bad experiences, it is more difficult to reduce fearfulness. Anytime an adult shows a fear response to someone or something, desensitization should be taken slowly. Being afraid of something can make the dog feel uncomfortable, so if an object or situation is forced on the pet all at once, the uncomfortable feeling will be intense and associated with that object. The next time the dog has a fearful encounter, he or she will associate the bad feeling with the encounter, and have even more reason to be fearful. This can even provoke the dog to become aggressive. Gradually introduce the object, possibly starting with it far away or for a very brief exposure and slowly increase the exposure. At the same time, couple it with a simultaneous good experience, such as a treat and good praise. This way the dog does not have feelings consistent with being fearful. This would also be applicable to puppies that are extremely afraid when exposed to a situation. If at any point the dog expresses fear in the habituation process, it has been pushed too far and you must back down to a lower stimulus. Dogs showing persistent fear should be seen by an animal behaviorist.
Cats do not have the same simple hierarchy as dogs to guide their social interactions. Cat personalities vary greatly; they may be social or asocial with people or cats. Socialization and habituation principles are true for the cat as well (see Provide socialization and habituation section above).
The most frequent reason cats are presented to behaviorists is for
elimination problems, such as not using the litter box or spraying. It is
important to see a veterinarian early in the course of these problems to make
sure there is not a medical reason for the inappropriate behavior. Some cats
choose not to use the litter box because they don't like something about it (see
below The litter
box). It is thought that cats exhibit spraying/marking as a territorial
behavior or as a result of their feelings of stress. This can be heightened by
fighting with other cats in the household or seeing cats through windows, having
too many cats in one household, disruption in the family, moving, or change of
guardian. Neutering is 90% successful at stopping spraying in male cats,
regardless of the cat's age. About 10% of male cats persist with spraying after
neutering. Approximately 5% of spayed female cats will spray. You may need to
seek professional help (see What
to do if your animal has a behavior problem).
Elimination problems can also be a result of an aversion to the litter box. Most cats do not like to use a dirty litter box. Therefore, it is important to clean the litter box regularly. Litter boxes should be scooped at least once daily and should be completely changed (throw out used litter, wash box with soap and water, dry and replace with new litter) as needed depending on the type of litter you are using, but strive for at least once every 2 weeks. They should be placed in different easily accessible locations, but not in highly trafficked areas, so as to give the cat some degree of privacy.
Some cats prefer uncovered litter boxes while others prefer covered ones, and some cats show no preference. One possible problem with covered litter boxes is that caregivers may forget to clean or scoop the box since they cannot see or smell the waste. If we forget to clean it, the cat may prefer not to use it! There are many different types of litter available and cats will show individual preferences. Most cats prefer the scoopable, unscented sand-type litter if given a choice. Most experts recommend having one more litter box than the number of cats in the household.
Cats use their paws to scent mark and visually mark by scratching different surfaces as a form of communication. If appropriate surfaces are not provided, the cat will find things like the sofa or curtains to carry out this behavior. It is important to provide cats with appropriate, attractive objects to scratch.
Scratching posts should be placed in prominent locations to encourage their use. In addition, cats usually stretch and scratch after rising so a scratching post should be provided next to your cat's resting spot, and tall enough that the cat is able to stand on hind legs and stretch out to scratch. To help prevent a potential inappropriate target from being used, you may find it helpful to temporarily cover the object with plastic or foil while you are teaching your cat to use the scratching post. It is best to get your cat started on scratching posts before having a chance to try other objects since a cat that once starts using an object will tend to reuse that same scratching area. If there is a problem with your cat scratching in inappropriate areas, seek the advice of your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist right away, because the longer the scratching is practiced, the more difficult it will be to stop. [Please see the link to declawing].
When you bring a new dog or cat into a household, expect an adjustment period for the animals already in the home. New animals should be introduced gradually and under supervision. Although most eventually learn to get along or tolerate each other, sometimes they can seriously injure each other so caution must be taken during introductions.
It is important to place the new animal in a limited area, such as one room. The resident animal(s) then have access to the rest of them home. The introduction through the closed door should be associated with tasty treats and praise of all pets involved (so you will need one person on either side of the door) to make it a positive experience. When the animals do not show any signs of aggression or anxiety at this stage, they may be introduced through limited means (on leash, through crates or a glass door, etc), and finally, off-leash and supervised. If there is every any aggression or anxiety, they should be returned to the last situation in which both pets did not display anxiety or aggression. The timeframe is highly variable, depending on the dynamics of the pets. Of course, this is just a brief overview of the process. Specific questions or concerns should be directed toward your primary care veterinarian or a veterinary behavioral specialist.