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Let’s face it – from jumping and humping to spraying and scratching, our pets’ behaviour can sometimes be very embarrassing. Behaviourist Inga MacKellar talks to Melanie Coleman about what’s behind these antisocial antics, and what we can do about potential cat and dog behaviour faux pas…
Picture the scene: that romantic movie night is going so well. Until something ruins the moment – your cat comes in and goes to the loo on the rug. Inga says that owners first need to determine whether this is urination or marking. ‘There is a big difference between the two. Urination is involuntary; the animal has a full bladder and needs to empty it. Spraying, on the other hand, is a specific action to mark territory, and is often influenced by stress. It may be helpful to know that cats usually stand to spray but squat to urinate.’ If your cat is urinating but is normally house trained and is behaving unusually, have him checked at the vet as it could be a sign of a urinary tract infection. However, if you think this is marking behaviour, it could be caused by upsetting smells coming into the home – your visitor may have dogs and that scent could be on their clothes. Inga says: ‘Smell is important to animals and they can’t cope with lots of new ones in their home, so they may try to reassure themselves by marking.’
Getting the hump
So your father-in-law is over for supper and everything is going perfectly… until there’s some embarrassing dog behaviour – he starts getting a bit too well acquainted with his leg! Inga says there are a few possible explanations, and that it’s important for the owner to work out which it is. ‘A dog is sometimes the sole focus in a house, but when a visitor comes, suddenly they’re no longer the centre of attention. If they hump the visitor’s leg, they get a reaction straight away. Even if they’re told off, they’re still the centre of attention.’ Inga has the following advice for this situation: ‘When your visitors arrive, let them say hello, then give the dog something to keep him occupied – a toy or an activity such as a chew puzzle packed with food.’
Another potential reason is that the dog is a young male with raging hormones. It is key to remember that adolescent dogs will calm down eventually, but owners may want to think about neutering – which can have significant benefits for health, as well as behaviour. In the meantime, Inga has this tip: ‘Try keeping your dog on a house line or indoor leash, and if he starts to hump, pick up the lead and calmly take him out of the room for a few minutes. Keep doing this. Then there’s no confrontation and you’re stopping his behaviour in a passive way.’
Driving you barking mad
You need to hear your colleague on the phone but your dog’s incessant barking makes it impossible – and it’s even worse when the doorbell rings… ‘There are all sorts of reasons for excessive barking,’ says Inga. ‘He could see the postman and get excited; notice another dog and become territorial; hear fireworks and be frightened; or feel lonely and upset. The owner needs to work out the reasons for barking.’ But she adds that it could also be attention-seeking: ‘Some dogs often object vocally when their owner answers the phone. I’d suggest going into another room and shutting the door. Also, keep the handset with you so you don’t rush to grab it when it rings – movement can over-excite the dog and cause him to bark. If he stays calm, give him praise and rewards.’
It can certainly be awkward when your cat hisses at your neighbour or your dog growls at your new girlfriend. Generally speaking, this is fearful behaviour, according to Inga. ‘Pets may be under-socialised and not have met enough people as a kitten or puppy. Then visitors may rush up to them or stare and this can make them scared.’ Inga adds: ‘While cats generally take flight when they’re anxious, if they feel cornered they will hiss. Similarly, a dog’s first instinct is to run if he’s scared, but if he’s pestered he will resort to growling. People normally back off, so the cat or dog learns that this is effective.’ Inga recommends asking visitors to ignore your cat or dog, or even putting pets in another room or in the garden. ‘Why upset them?’ she says. Of course, if you have major concerns, speak to your vet.
Being a pet owner has its difficult moments, but lots of rewarding ones too. And once you get to the bottom of the reasons for your pet’s behaviour, you might just be blushing a little less.
TOP TIPS: How to encourage good behaviour:
2. Do be patient, keep commands consistent and remember to reward good behaviour
3. Do ensure your pet is getting enough exercise and mental stimulation
4. Don’t shout at your pet or punish him or her – this can be confusing and stressful for them
5. Don’t force your pet into a situation when they’re visibly upset or worried