I have lived my life surrounded by pets and it has changed me for the better. I have been a veterinarian for 39 years now, but I decided to pursue a career in veterinary medicine when I was only 4 years old.
As a veterinarian I have studied every aspect of animals and animal care, pouring over books and attending hours of seminars dealing with every animal related subject imaginable. Of course, all things medical and surgical played the biggest role in my veterinary education as you would expect. Long ago I realized that caring for a pet’s behavioral needs is just as important as caring for their medical and surgical needs.
As I began working in my own veterinary practice, I saw how interrelated a pet’s behavioral and emotional state is to its health and well being. I saw how difficult it was for an anxious pet to accept veterinary care and how their anxieties made it difficult for them to recover from their illnesses. More than that, these anxious and/or excitable pets weren’t fitting into their homes. Too often these pets were sent to shelters or worse, their anxieties and excitement led to biting and their owners had to consider euthanasia.
I made it my mission in life to help these pets and the families who love them by teaching people how to communicate with their pets and how to recognize when they are in need of behavioral help. As I learned how to care for and teach pets in a calm and positive way, I learned that I had to become a calmer and more confident person myself in order to truly help the most troubled ones. This is the gift that a lifetime of living with and working with pets has given me and one of the greatest joys that comes from building the human animal bond. If we do it right, animals can make us all better, and, while you’re helping your pet, they’re helping you back.
1. Most important of all is to always watch your pets for their input and reactions. Your pets will be your best teachers and they will always tell you the truth. If you have a calm and balanced, happy-go-lucky animal family, then you’re doing well. If issues exist, than consider that you and your animal family may need some help.
To me, this is one of the best rewards that comes from working with pets; you never have to wonder how you’re doing, the animal’s actions will always tell you. I have studied animal behavior since before I went to veterinary college, but every important thing I know comes from watching and loving my own dogs and cats over all these years.
2. Dogs and cats are affected directly by human emotions. If you’re feeling worried, frustrated or impatient, your pet will be affected by these emotions, too. Certain pets are caretakers. They will come to your side and try to help you. Others, those with anxieties or other issues, will take on your emotions in a negative way. Your feelings of worry, frustration, impatience, etc. add to their feelings of vulnerability, and things can quickly go from bad to worse. If you can turn these emotions around and calm yourself, you will bring calm to your pet, as well. If you are too upset to do that, don’t touch your pet or work with them until you can calm yourself down.
3. I will now give you my philosophy of pet training in a nutshell, and it was my own dogs and cats who taught this to me. Reward your pet the moment that you see them doing the very thing you want them to repeat, and ignore (my favorite), redirect or correct immediately when you see them doing the thing you never want to see repeated.
Your timing needs to be spot on. Pets live in the moment. If you wait even a second or two too late, you will confuse your pet completely. Or, if you reward with a touch for the wrong thing (your dog jumping up in greeting for example), your pet will get the wrong message.
4. Pet lovers have great hearts. They always try to do their best for their pets. The problems arise from an uncertainty or a confusion about how to help. Too often pets are treated like babies or small children instead of who they really are. I’ll give an example of how this small misunderstanding can cause a bigger issue for your pet. When comforting a child who has just had a little scare, a parent will stroke them and often speak in a tiny, soothing voice. The same is often done for a fearful pet with mixed results. To a pet, the stroking is seen as a reward for what they are doing in that moment, which means, in your pet’s mind, that you are praising them for being scared and want them to continue to be scared. Because you’re speaking in a tiny voice, they’ll believe that you, too, are scared and that you are in need of their protection. Thus, a miscommunication is born.
Instead, be very calm yourself. Take some deep breaths as a “calming signal.” Wait until your dog calms down even for a moment and then reward with praise and stroking. You have just communicated to your pet that you are proud for their strength and courage. Good job!
1. For both your dogs and cats: Learn to communicate with your pets in their language. Pets communicate with their bodies; the position of their mouth, their ears, their tail, their torso and even their hair. You can study books about this as I did or, more practically and importantly, you can study your own pets. How do they act when excited or anxious? Who and what relaxes them? If it’s you, then pat yourself on the back.
Reward calm behaviors and your pet will aspire to be calm. Reward demanding behaviors (stroking when your dog jumps up on you) and you’ll get more demands.
Whether or not a pet will take a treat can be a barometer for calmness. A pet’s sense of smell and taste diminishes when fearful. If too fearful to take a treat, it’s too fearful to go forward with training or greetings. Teach your pet obedience commands and “tricks,” but don’t confuse these with a cure for behavioral issues such as anxieties and phobias. These issues require specialized help.
Don’t be afraid to seek help when needed, and the sooner you seek help for your pet the better.
2. For your dog: Learn what it means to be a pack leader/protector to a dog; this is the calmest, bravest, most confident and balanced individual in the dog’s social pack. This is a leader who the pack will want to follow and the protector of every one of its members. The pack leader sets clear, consistent rules and serves as a role model for the pack. The leader/protector is who you should strive to be within your own pack.
Do a calming walk with your dog every day. I believe more can be accomplished by a calming walk with your best friend than with anything else you can do together. Walking my dog family each morning is the joy of my life. It is the time when we bond the most. However, do it right. You don’t want your dog to lead and pull you. Think of your leash as an antenna transmitting messages to your pet. Hold the leash short, but loose, with your arm relaxed and down at your side. If you need to transmit a message to your pet, lightly lift your arm upward so your pet instantly feels the slight and subtle movements you make. Never force or pull your pet. You want your best friend to look to you for direction and leadership. If you’re having trouble walking your pet, get help early. This is an important one to get right.
3. For your cat: Teach your cat the joys and benefits of climbing to a vertical space for fun and also when they’re frightened. Use positive associations (treats, toys, pats, praise) to help. A cat that is looking down from a high space generally feels more comfortable and confident than a cat who is running away and hiding under furniture.
Any changes in a cat’s behavior is something that should never be ignored. Cats often try to hide their illnesses from us. Call your veterinarian if you see any changes, even little ones. By the time cats stop eating or their symptoms worsen, it could be too late.
I leave you with the two most important pieces of advice I can give you as you begin on this wonderful journey of understanding and learning with your own pets. First, you should keep in mind that everything you do, say and feel counts when working with pets. So this is your opportunity to be your pet’s role model. Second, remember to have fun and enjoy every moment you have with your sweet and furry best friends. Life is always better when you share it with pets.
As I write this column I am sitting here with my eight dogs and seven cats around me and my husband, Dave, in the next room. They are my inspiration and my joy. Everything I know about dog and cat behavior comes from the pets who surround me, the pets I have loved who have preceded them, and the special patients who have helped me throughout the years. Dave helps by believing in me.
When I was young I dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but the gifts that have come from truly connecting with and understanding pets have been far greater than anything I could have imagined. Spending my life working with dogs and cats has been a great privilege and a blessing.
Dr. Mar Doering has spent the last 30-plus years working to establish a unique center where a patient’s care and comfort comes first. Doering entered private practice in the central Missouri area and founded the Animal Clinic of South Callaway, PC in 1980. In 2010, Doering rededicated her clinic as “All Paws Medical and Behavioral Center” in order to give appropriate emphasis on her increased interest in treating animals with behavioral issues.
She was chosen to be a training consultant for the Jefferson City Correctional Center “Puppies 4 Parole” (P4P) program instituted by the Missouri Department of Corrections as a volunteer. For more than four years, she worked with offender-dog handlers to train unadoptable dogs into AKC tested Canine Good Citizens and wrote much of the P4P training manual for the state. Doering also works with the Jefferson City Animal Shelter to assist dogs suffering from anxieties and teaches puppy kindergarten classes for the Friends of the JCAS. In 2012 Dr. Doering was chosen by the Missouri Veterinary Medical Foundation to be inducted into the Veterinary Honor Roll if Missouri.
For more information, visit AskDrDoering.com.