Pet owners don’t solve problems by taking anger out on their animal

A common question that often presents itself to me is that of discipline. You’ve just come home and have found that your dog has chewed the couch or gone to the bathroom on the rug. You are infuriated, take the dog over to the spot and yell at it or smack it, saying “Bad Dog!” The rational, as explained by numerous owners, is that the dog knew it did wrong. Just by looking at the dog when they get home they can tell if something’s happened. The dog may not greet them at the door, or if it does it may have its ears back or its tail between its legs. It looks guilty, or “knows it’s been bad,” and so owners feel justified in punishing the animal. In fact, even if the dog does not appear guilty, owners still feel the need to punish the animal at that point.

And still, despite such punishment and the dog’s apparent knowledge of its wrongdoing, these problems continue to recur. Why?

First of all, we can only speculate as to whether the animal actually appears guilty because of some knowledge of a wrongdoing on its part. However, it’s usually only upon the owner’s arrival that the dog begins to appear this way, not before. If one is to surmise anything about the situation, it is that the dog is behaving fearfully upon the owner’s arrival in anticipation of punishment when some damage is found. And for the sake of argument, even if the animal is aware of its “crime,” the punishment is ineffective in deterring future problems because such knowledge is not carried with them to the moment when they are about to chew or eliminate.

Timing is critical in effectively disciplining a problem behavior. A loud, sharp, low-pitched sound (e.g., “NO!”) delivered at the start of the behavior will usually scare the animal and cause it to stop what it was doing. The desired effect is as if unexpectedly a bomb burst, and you jumped in fright and were stopped from doing what you were previously doing. It usually only takes several occasions for the animal to learn to avoid engaging in that particular behavior as a way to avoid the discipline. Punishment at later times (unrelated to the problem behavior) will only cause the animal to become fearful of what it’s doing at that moment when the punishment is delivered.

Punishing cats for soiling outside their litterboxes and then putting them in the litterbox is something that is commonly done. There the fear that the cat is experiencing during the punishment becomes inadvertently associated with the litterbox. Now they want to avoid the litterbox. Through such punishment you’ve created an aversion to the litterbox, an additional reason for the cat to have accidents outside the box.

Another thing to avoid with regard to discipline is related to fearful behaviors. If an animal is behaving in a particular way as a result of fear or anxiety, then disciplining them for that behavior is likely to make them even more fearful. A classic example is the dog that urinates in fear or because it is overly submissive. The dog urinates, the owner gets angry and yells at or hits the dog and the problem becomes worse. Whether its fear of people or noises (e.g., thunderstorms) or other animals or places, there are a variety of behavioral displays which can indicate that an animal is afraid. It is important that special care be taken with such animals to prevent the aggravation of their problems.

Disciplining pets, and even children for that matter, is all too often done as a reaction. The sight or realization of the problem behavior causes people to become angry, and that anger has to go somewhere. So people redirect that anger onto the animal and more often than not it is only serving to relieve that surge of energy in the angry owner. There is rarely, if ever, a need to use physical discipline with animals. The trauma that some incur as a result of “punishment” is heartbreaking and only creates far bigger problems than were there to begin with.

More important, and most often forgotten, is that while appropriate discipline can be effective in deterring problem behaviors, praising and rewarding good behaviors is vital for teaching pets what behaviors are respected and desired.

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