Every dog or cat – regardless of whether he or she is a competitor, in the show ring, or a just a faithful member of the family - can benefit from training. Every pet can be trained! Yet, hundreds of pets that are purchased as Christmas presents are surrendered in the spring because of “behavioral concerns.” Studies show that most surrendered dogs (47.7%) are between 5 months and 3 years of age. Most dogs had been owned from 7 months to one year. Approximately 3.9 million dogs and 3.2 million cats are abandoned or given up to shelters each year. Training can be the antidote to the heart-breaking decision of re-homing your pet because of behavioral problems.
Why should I train my pet?
There are many reasons for training your pet, and they are centered around (1) physical benefits, (2) mental enrichment and (3) improvements in behavior and emotional health. Training creates a synergy of these benefits. For example, training as simple as taking your dog on a walk and switching up the path at regular intervals provides not just physical exercise but also mental stimulation. Contrary to popular belief, cats are just as fun to train as dogs! Your cat will welcome learning basic directions, and most kittens take well to leash training if you pair the lessons with food and fun. Participating in training your pet creates a healthy and lasting bond between the two of you. With training, you are both learning about each other and gaining mutual trust. In learning habits and behavior, needs can be anticipated as positive behaviors are affirmed and unwanted behaviors are extinguished.
Why is mental enrichment important for pets?
Just like humans, our pets can suffer if not given mental stimulation. In fact, many behavior problems are caused by boredom or a lack of mental stimulation. Mental stimulation is just as important as physical exercise. Some easy ways to include mental enrichment into your pet’s day include providing plenty of mentally stimulating toys and going on a treat search. Dogs and cats are curious animals, so giving them commands and teaching them tricks that go beyond simple obedience commands can solve issues with boredom and anxiety. Activities such as scent work and engaging in fun toys and puzzles can provide mental challenges while at the same time, teach safe social contact and playing without reactivity (i.e. becoming destructive).
How can training improve my pet’s behavior?
Training can help keep your pets safe in risky situations and helps keep them under control if people are wary of them. An untrained dog may not heed its owner’s calls, oblivious to impending dangers. A reactive dog is an unsafe dog. Training can also improve your dog’s social skills: dogs are social animals and will want to interact with other dogs at the dog park, vet clinic and family gatherings. Training can open doors for your dog as you will be able to take your pet to public places and not have to be concerned about their behavior.
While most cats cannot be trained to do the array of tasks dogs are bred for, basic training – such as using a litter box - comes naturally to them. The act of training in and of itself is incredibly valuable for frustrated, bored, shy and fearful cats. While cats benefit from training in many of the same ways as dogs, training them requires a different tact. Unlike dogs who relate to their family like toddler-aged children, cats are more like teenagers. While dogs cooperate with a few kind words, cats are motivated on a “pay-to-play” basis. Dismissive of gushy excitement, cats will participate in training games only if the rewards are worthwhile.
Training helps you and your pet distinguish between play and aggressive behavior. Trained dogs and cats are more fun and enjoyable members of the family. Training avoids problem behaviors such as chewing, marking of territory, and separation anxiety, as well as problems stemming from insecurity and power struggles.
Good nutrition is in direct correlation to successful training. Feeding a species-appropriate high-quality diet will provide them the physical ability and mental focus needed to learn new skills. Studies show that a poor diet (i.e. dry kibble) can contribute to anxiety, depression and inability to focus. A healthy gut microbiome, fortified by highly nutritious food and a probiotic, reduces inflammation and provides consistent energy and mental clarity.
How should I train my pet?
“Pet-friendly” training makes learning a more rewarding, easy and a happy experience for both the pet and the human parent. The pet-friendly approach incorporates mutual trust and rewards for good behavior. Positive reinforcement training is the most effective method. Whenever your pet demonstrates good behavior and responds positively to your commands, reward them! Training treats are great rewards for food-motivated cats and dogs. If your pet is not food motivated, experiment with other rewards such as a play session with a favorite toy, verbal affirmation or even plenty of affection. When giving commands, be consistent in your words and intonation. Make sure all members of the family do the same. Make training sessions short and frequent – the American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends keeping sessions to 5 minutes maximum. Repeat the training sessions in different locations, with different people and varying levels of distraction. Make it fun and praise the small things!
With cats, the important thing is to let him/her have the final say in what you teach them, as not all cats like to do all things. Lessons often require intense focus, so like dogs, keep them short and upbeat, no more than 5 minutes. End each session with some fun such as a feathered or stuffed toy.
Another great option for cat or dog is to find a professional trainer or join a training class. Hiring a professional trainer is one of the fastest ways to get results. Do your research before choosing, ask pet parent friends and family for references and be sure they use positive reinforcement techniques.
What is the Canine Good Citizen Certification?
Skills that are learned in the Canine Good Citizen program are designed to teach dogs how to behave in a socially acceptable way; the program is often referred to as a “class in good manners” for dogs. A dog that passes the AKC Canine Good Citizen test will be a better-behaved companion. You will establish a strong bond with your pup, and he/she will have a better ability to communicate with and understand you. You will have the ability to control your dog in a variety of situations, making for a safer environment. Signing up for the Canine Good Citizen program involves taking local CGC training classes with your dog. You can also take non-AKC classes that teach the necessary skills for passing the CGC test. There are a variety of “focal points” that are covered during training including: accepting a friendly stranger, sitting politely for petting, walking on a loose lead, walking through a crowd, commands such as “sit,” “down,” and stay, coming when called, and reactions to another dog and to distractions. Contact your local AKC club or check out the AKC website if you are interested.
It is the job of a pet parent to provide the education the pet needs. A well-trained pet is more tolerant and well-behaved in a host of situations. Training requires time and effort, as well as patience and money, but the results are worth it! Always remember to keep an open mind when starting training, enjoy every session and always use positive reinforcements.