January is National Pet Training Month

by Dr. Doug Pernikoff, DVM

Statistics show that most new puppies, kittens and adult critters enter our homes during the period from Thanksgiving through the Christmas Holiday and New Years. Whether acquired from a breeder, or rescued from one of many rescue groups in the area, we pet owners are faced with the reality of a new pet in our homes. We should never assume that our new pets, even adult versions, are properly trained and ready to fit into our scheduled house events. Don’t expect them to know the rules of the house either!

I always remind new pet owners that puppies and kittens are like newborns, neither physically or intellectually mature. A basic premise in training is that the more often our pets are successful at whatever action we are imposing or training to, the sooner they are learning. That implies and mandates a responsibility upon the pet owner. You need to be consistent and persistent in your training exercises. Just as we do in working with our own children as they grow and develop, we must be patient, compliant in our training methods and yet, firm in our expectations.

For either new adult rescues or young critters, crate training is a great first action. The crate is the actionable metaphor for the wild carnivore’s den space. It should be tight and comfortable. If the crate is too large, the animal will sit in one space and pee or poop in the remaining area. Just use a blanket or sleeping bag to kill dead space. Again, the available space should be just enough for your pet to lay comfortably. You should schedule to ALWAYS follow the same steps. Take the pet out of the crate, and before there is a chance to play, put on your lead and walk him/her outside, verbally encouraging the critter to pee or poo, whatever terms you prefer to assign. Do not allow outside play at this time. Until the animal learns that OUTSIDE is a place of work first and foremost, then freedom to romp and roam are prohibited. This may only take one to two weeks with bright individuals. After a successful stool or urination episode, you can bring the pet in and play for a bit, always with controlled supervision. If there is no yard deposit, then bring the pet in and place him/her back into the crate for just a few minutes. Repeat the entire exercise again. You will get success soon enough. If you are still confused about crate training, best to contact your veterinarian for guidance.

Another consideration in training is understanding that many rescue animals arrived in that dilemma for a reason. Often, it has to do with bad behaviors. I also warn new adoptees that most animals adopted into a new home, go through a honeymoon period, when their own fear and insecurity keeps them behaving cautiously, and with apparent good behaviors. Initially, common sense should guide you to partition your new pet’s freedoms. The last thing you want is furniture or drapery destruction. Or, if the pet turns out to be an avid chewer, you may end up at the emergency clinic, spending a ton of dollars to remove that kitchen towel you left hanging, with all those good smells and tastes saturated within it.

Social training to introduce your new pet to other animals is another critical action to impose ASAP. The best time to initiate your new pup to other critters is anywhere from 9-11 weeks when they are particularly active in accepting socialization opportunities. If you have a rescue, be sure to keep a good lead on and either join a training class or cautiously visit public spaces like pet shops or maybe your local dog park. Always keep control until you get a sense of how socialized your pet is. Cats are a game unto themselves. I tend to find that passive socializing between cats is better. Or, sit down with your cat in one lap and your dog under someone elses control. Make it a quiet space and let them begin to socialize with your supervision.

Many dogs tend to hoard toys, or even the food bowl, as their very personal possession. This kind of territoriality can lead to aggressive behaviors, when you least expect them. The best lesson here is to always keep your guard up. Even puppies can develop aggressive territoriality surrounding food, treats or toys. In my mind, that is a big NO NO!! Nip it in the bud.

People often ask about the type of training treat required. I feel that in most cases a good hug or petting is as rewarding as a physical food treat. In the event that you choose to use a food reward, then I always suggest simply using the very kibble food you provide as part of their regular diet. Most of the time, the action of rewarding is as important as the product used.

Another common question regards the use of pinch collars or other chokers in order to train and control your pet. Although they look barbaric, the typical pinch collar can be used very effectively in training larger and stronger dog breeds. Another great alternative is the gentle leader nylon collar that fits both around the muzzle and the neck in simultaneous fashion. Together, these site controls appear to encourage immediate response and excellent control of even the most difficult, energy driven individuals. I consider a simple choker collar as dangerous and inappropriate for most dogs. When possible, I prefer to either use the gentle leader device, or a harness, to avoid damage to the trachea and other related anatomy of the neck region.

In summary, I applaud all new pet owners, especially those folks willing to take in a rescue critter. There are still over 6-8 million feral dogs euthanized in shelters nationwide. But, the responsibilities associated with any new pet are many. Good vet care, proper nutrition and appropriate training actions are all necessary components of proper pet care. If you invest in the critter emotionally and financially, then do it right!!!

Enjoy the New Year and Have Fun with your New Family Pets!!
Fondly, Dr. Doug Pernikoff
Clarkson-Wilson Veterinary Hospital