Q: We adopted a dog and cat from the shelter last summer, and things were going well until Thanksgiving. The dog jumped on my elderly mother, and the cat got on the counter to get to the turkey. Both of them escaped through the front door numerous times—it was a total zoo. Is there anything I can do to make Christmas easier? I have the entire family coming, and I break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it after the Thanksgiving debacle!
A: Welcome to life with animals! There are definitely some adjustments that need to be made to our lives and routines when animals join our families—especially during the holidays. This is the busiest time of year for animal behaviorists as people scramble to get some manners on their beloved pets before the entire family descends on their household. Although it’s great that a number of people seek my help over the holidays, a little foresight would have made their lives easier. Dogs and cats don’t do crash courses well, and trying to teach them manners in a short period of time usually leads to more frustrations. However, don’t despair! There are a few things you can do between now and Christmas to help your dog and cat learn a few more manners. It’s crucial, though, that everyone in the family be consistent with the rules in order to have success.
1. Jumping dogs need to be taught proper greeting manners. Dogs should greet in a sitting position. Teach your dog to sit by putting a piece of food in front of his nose and raising it back over his head. Don’t bring the food too high or the dog will jump to get it. As the dog looks back over his head at the food his rear end will go down. As soon as it does, tell him “Yes” and give him the food. Add the word “Sit” as the dog begins to consistently sit when you present the food. Take the food out of your hand, and use the same motion with the word “Sit.” Now use this command every time you or anyone else greets the dog. If the dog jumps, turn your back, step away, and ignore the dog until he sits. Then instantly turn around and praise him. Use a leash when new visitors come so you can control the dog better. Stepping on the leash will help keep him grounded and off your mother. Praise desired behaviors.
2. Cats (and dogs) need to learn that certain surfaces are off limits. Kitchen counters and dining room tables are two places cats should definitely not be allowed at any time. Start by setting your animals up for success and don’t keep food on the counters for extended periods of time. When there is temptation up there, assign a member of the family to be the “guard.” This person must not leave their post. If one of the animals tries to get up on the counter use a squirt bottle with a hiss sound for cats or a “leave it” for dogs. Always follow any negative with a positive. Praise the animal for four on the floor. Let them know that is the behavior you prefer. Eventually you can eliminate the squirt bottle and just use the hiss or the leave it as an animal begins to even think about getting up on the counter. There is a motion sensor product called Sscat that sprays a burst of air if a cat jumps on the counter. This is effective when you aren’t around. Pretty soon the animals learn that the counter is not a lot of fun. Remember to reinforce this rule all the time—no exceptions—and don’t leave temptations on the counter that will reward the animals effort.
3. Both animals need to learn that running out the front door is unacceptable. Teach a wait at the door. For safety reasons, you may want to tether a dog so they can’t dart out the door while you practice this new skill. Go to the door and start to open it slightly. When the animal starts to dart out, close the door and say wait--for cats you may want to give a slight hiss and a squirt of water. Repeat this step a few times until the animal begins to hesitate when the door is opening. Praise them for waiting. A solid wait at the door will take weeks (months to really be reliable off leash), but if you stick with it, you will begin to have animals that no longer dash out an open door. It’s easier if you can always take your animals out through another door, so they don’t ever get to cross the threshold at the front, but it’s not necessary. After your dog learns wait, you can teach him a release word to cross the doorway after you when you go for walks.
The holidays can be joyful with a little planning. Classes are a good idea but with more holidays just around the corner, a crash course on manners is necessary. After all, your animals just want to be part of the party and don’t realize that greeting grandma with paws on her shoulder or taste-testing the turkey on the counter are against the rules. Animals will be animals until we show them what we expect. Remember—rules that are not just for the holidays. Take time to teach your animal proper manners for a lifetime of joy!
NOTE: Please do not give animals as gifts during the holidays. Give a gift certificate instead and pick out the perfect animal together after the hustle and bustle is over. An animal is a lifetime commitment so the recipient should participate in choosing the appropriate animal for their lifestyle. Happy Holidays!