Teaching veterinary behaviours

Working as a vet nurse for the past 7 years has taught me a lot about animal behaviour and handling. The more i learn the more aware i become of the level of stress many pets experience the moment they come through the door at a vet clinic.

Through my involvement with Puppy Preschool, Adolescent Training, and Obedience Club I am often recommending and teaching people how to practice handling their dogs to better prepare them for visits to the vet. People often don’t realise that vet visits don’t have to be big dramas, and that it doesn’t take a lot of work to teach a new pet to enjoy being handled! And it isn’t just dogs we can prepare for the vet either.

Dogs and cats will benefit from being taught to enjoy:

  • Having their ears handled
  • Having their paws picked up, held, and manipulated
  • Having their tail handled
  • Having their body and belly stroked and massaged
  • Having their mouths open
  • Sitting and settling on a table or raised surface
  • Stepping onto and sitting on a raised surface (dogs – for the scales)dog training townsville

A dog or cat that has previously been exposed to this sort of handling will have a much easier time during their vet visit that one who is rarely handled in these ways. They will also be easier to check over if they get a prickle in their paw, or another minor injury you might want to check.

Birds will benefit from being taught to enjoy:

  • Stepping onto a t-perch on some scales
  • Going in and out of their carry cage
  • Being wrapped and held in a towel (gradual process)
  • Having their feet picked up and handled
  • Having their wings handled

Birds that are familiar with being handled in these ways are much more relaxed during a veterinary check up, plus you will be able to do some of their routine care (like nail trims) easily at home.

It is important when introducing your pet to new handling that you take it nice and slowly, and reward them for calm behaviour with each step in the right direction. Use lots of yummy treats, and don’t be afraid to take treats with you for vet visits too. Speak to your vet clinic as most will be more than happy for you to come in during a quiet period to do some training with your pet. It helps your pet to relax if they sometimes visit the vet just for cuddles, treats, and training.

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Training Talk: Punishment

This instalment of “Training Talk” is going to look at punishment. This might seem an odd topic to find on the blog of a force-free trainer who utilises positive reinforcement, but it is my belief that it is important to understand not just what you recommend, but also what others recommend.

Punishment is a word that holds a lot of unpleasant associations. When we hear the word we tend to think of a smack or harsh words. In the world of training it isn’t quite that simple.

Dog Training

Punishment is simply something that decreases the chance of our pet repeating a certain behaviour. When our dog barks or our bird squawks and we yell “NO!”, we are hoping that they will stop the noise and hopefully not do it again. This example, and many other commonly used “punishments” are rarely as effective as we would like.

Just like reinforcement, there are two types of punishment we can utilise in training. The first is the most well known, positive punishment. This sounds contradictory, but all the positive means is that we add something to decrease a behaviour. We might add a loud noise to stop a barking dog, a squirty bottle to stop a scratching cat, or a yank on the leash to stop a pulling dog.

We can also use negative punishment. This sounds silly too, but like the positive means to add something, the negative means we take something away to decrease a behaviour. When we use negative punishment we take away something our pet likes in response to their misbehaviour, it’s like a time-out. This is what people are hoping to achieve when they “ignore” their pet for doing something naughty, they are taking away their attention, but often there are environmental factors outside our control that may be undermining our efforts.

Timing is everything in training, and this is true of punishment too. If we want our punishment to affect our pets behaviour, it needs to happen immediately following the behaviour we want to see less off. This means if you discover your pets misbehaviour hours after the event, you just need to move on. Punishing you pet will be damaging to your relationship, and completely irrelevant to your pet. Also consider how hard it is to properly “time-out” your pet immediately following something naughty – by the time you get them to the naughty corner or back in the cage, 10 things have happened since the behaviour you want to punish, and the lesson is lost!

If we get our timing right we can stop unpleasant behaviours, but we have to realise why punishment works to decrease a behaviour. It works because our pet doesn’t enjoy the outcome, most often because what we do is aversive (or unpleasant). Training with aversive’s create stress and anxiety for our pets, which can lead to bigger problems long term. We would do better to look at why the problem behaviour is occurring, and looking for ways to prevent it happening again while teaching our pets more acceptable behaviours that we can reward. This is much more enjoyable for both us, and our pets.

Train smart, not tough!

“What” and “Why”

Last night I shared a quote by Sue Ailsby, from her free The Sue Ailsby Collection which can be found on her website. The quote generated a lot more response than I had anticipated when I posted it, so i’d like to take a closer look!

“WHY is not nearly as important as WHAT. Teach yourself to see what the dog is doing rather than worrying about why he does it.” – Sue Ailsby.

what and why
Wilbur is barking. Does he want to play, or increase the distance of something, or is he just being obnoxious?

I think the primary reason this struck a nerve with some followers is that the “WHY” in the context of this quote was misinterpreted. It’s referring to the “why” of what the animal is thinking, not the antecedent to the behaviour. If we use a puppy having an accident indoors as an example, we can change the “what” by giving our puppy more opportunity to go outside, and rewarding toileting on the grass. In days gone by people would get caught up in the “why” – he was teaching you a lesson for leaving him alone so long, he knew it was wrong but did it anyway, etc. Thinking this way tends to make us mad, which makes us more likely to respond impulsively by yelling, rubbing their nose in it, or smacking their bottom.

The only thoughts we can ever truly know are our own. We can ask our human friends what they are thinking, and often we can trust that they will respond truthfully, but we can’t ask the same question of our pets.

We need to look at what our pets are doing, and how we can best meet their physical, mental, and social needs to create a happy and well-balanced pet. By focusing on what they are doing we can get valuable information about how well we are doing, and what we could do better. We can learn the difference between relaxed body language and fearful body language, and address either appropriately, but we’re still measuring behaviour and not thoughts.

If we get caught up making assumptions about our pets thoughts, we are stepping onto a slippery slope. The science of behaviour change and modification looks at “what” the animal is doing (what we can observe) and how we can effect that by changing what happens prior (antecedents) or after (consequences) the target behaviour. We can also use the tools of behaviour modification to help our pets respond appropriately to different stimuli, through desensitization and counter-conditioning, but even then we are measuring what the pet is doing, not why.

The dangers of doing nothing

One of the most common phone calls we get is from owners with an adolescent or young adult pets who are misbehaving. Upon further enquiry the misbehaviour has been going on for months, sometimes even longer. So why is the behaviour suddenly annoying enough to call for help, and why does it take so long?

Speaking with owners, we have found that many people hold the belief that pets go through naughty phases which they will grow out of. With this belief in mind, most people live through the frustration of a naughty puppy, kitten, or parrot, then transition into the crazy teenage age, complain about their “hormonal” pet, and then finally reach the conclusion that nothing has changed and they can’t put up with it anymore.

While it is true that our pets do change as they grow up, we are still always in a position to be able to positively influence their behaviour. We need to get out of the habit of waiting for something to become a problem and then reacting, and into the habit of knowing how we do want our pets to behave and taking a proactive approach to help them reach those behavioural goals.

naughty puppy

We always remind people that if you do nothing, nothing will change. If your puppy is chasing your pant legs as you walk it may be “just a puppy thing”, but you can teach your puppy to move beside you, carry a toy, or sit for attention rather than waiting to have a 7 month old dog heeling you as you walk. Your biting budgie may be “hormonal”, but teaching her to station or step onto a perch will save your finger and maintain your relationship much better than keeping her cage-bound hoping she will grow out of it.

One look at any shelter or rescue website is enough to make you realise that they are full to the brim of young animals that didn’t “grow out of it”. Be proactive in helping your pet to succeed as a member of your family, and train smart, not tough!