Pet behaviour is an important aspect of owning an animal that pet owners sometimes overlook. Having a thorough understanding of expected behaviour patterns throughout your pet’s life will help improve the quality of life for animal and owner. Many owners do not realise that problems could be avoided through breeding and raising your pet in a certain way.
In a recent paper (2019) by Dietz, Arnold et al “The importance of early life experiences for the development of behavioural disorders in domestic dogs.” they made observations how adult dog behaviour is not all about the training and interactions puppies receive from their humans. There is far more to consider, particularly the effects of secure attachments between mum and pups. We need to help our pups develop right from the start to enable them to have the best relationships they can. That’s a pretty complicated mix of neurophysiology, ethology and learning theory. But we’ll save that for another day.
Choose the right pet for your circumstances
Pet behaviour is affected by genetics. Certain breeds of dogs are known to be more excitable than others, for example. However, the way your pet behaves may also be influenced by how they were bred and managed in the first few weeks after birth, especially in the case of puppies.
Would-be pet owners should do their homework when it comes to making a breeder selection and ask relevant questions about the parent stock as well as the environment during pregnancy.
For dogs, consider:
- The temperament of the bitch – is she confident, over-excitable, fearful, easily stressed or aggressive? – these are hereditary traits which are likely to pass to the puppies
- The familiarity of the environment during the pregnancy – changes can leas to stress in the bitch which in turn may cause behavioural problems with the pups
- Affection and love shown to the bitch during the pregnancy – reduce any negative stressors
- Unresolved behaviour issues in the bitch should not be tackled during the pregnancy
- Nutrition and exercise during pregnancy is vital for health and deficiencies in either could lead to behavioural issues
- Any specific response issues the bitch may have, e.g. sensitivity to loud noises such as fireworks could have a detrimental impact on behaviour in the puppies due the anxiety levels in pregnancy
- The environment of the stud dog. If there are behavioural issues with the stud, this could be inherited by the puppies.
Breeders also have a responsibility to ensure optimal health of the puppies for around 7-12 weeks after birth before they can be separated from the mother. During this time, it is necessary to ensure that:
- puppies are given free access to suckle, not just for food but for comfort.
- That they have opportunities for human and other animal interaction, initially using scent cloths to avoid infection and later directly.
- The mother’s nutrition is well-supported so that she can adequately feed her puppies.
- The mother is de-wormed as this can cause a detrimental impact on puppies’ behaviour due to toxins which cross into the mother’s milk.
- Once the puppies have opened their eyes, they can be removed from the mother for short periods of time or the mother can be encouraged to freely move away from the puppies so that they are less likely to suffer separation anxiety when older.
- Safe toys are provided to give the puppies a stimulating environment. Unwanted behaviours can occur if the environment is boring.
- Gradual weaning is ideal to reduce any risk of separation anxiety.
- Puppies can be acclimatised to travelling in a car from around 6 weeks of age as well as preparation for vaccination such as withstanding being restrained for a short period of time.
For more details and references you can check out this article about the role of breeders and their responsibilities.
For pet owners wanting a cat, consider:
- Whether you prefer a pedigree or a cross-breed (moggy).
- The temperament of the breed – some cats are not happy around children, for example.
- Grooming maintenance is higher with long-haired breeds.
- Some breeds may be more susceptible to health conditions.
Of course, you may not be getting your pet from a breeder, you may be getting a rescue dog or cat, or even a tortoise. These animals are at higher risk of suffering from a behavioural issue due to their previous circumstances. You should ask plenty of questions of the animal shelter so that you have a very clear understanding of the issues you may be taking on.
Finally, choose the right pet for your personal living situation. Most people agree that if you live in a small property, especially a flat with no garden, then getting a big dog that requires a lot of exercise may not be a smart choice.
Equally, if you choose a cat for a flat, then you may need to provide a litter tray if your cat cannot get outside when you aren’t there.
All animals require a reasonable amount of care and attention to remain happy and healthy throughout their lives, so think carefully and buy the right pet for your situation.
How experiences impact your pet’s behaviour
Socialisation and habituation are critical in the early weeks of a puppy’s or kitten’s life. Exposure to as many experiences as possible in a controlled way will enable your pet to fit into your life with minimum disruption.
Puppies require these experiences between 4-14 weeks of age and kittens between 2-7 weeks for best results.
Socialisation is “the process whereby an animal learns how to recognise and interact with its own species and the species with which it cohabits”
Socialisation involves providing opportunities for your pet to have pleasant social interactions with adults, children, the vet and other animals.
A puppy or kitten’s brain, much like a baby’s needs stimulation to help cognitive development. It takes time for them to learn about their new family and social group and how they should behave around people and other animals. Consistent training, praise and patience is required.
Recommended socialisation experiences list
• Meeting a variety of people (men, women, young people, babies, elderly, delivery people)
• People with different personal appearances (glasses, hat, beard, uniforms, boots, umbrella, long hair)
• Modes of transport (cars, walking, riding a bicycle, skateboard, jogging, pram, pushchair)
• Meeting a variety of animals (cats, dogs, livestock, horses, small pets – rabbit, guinea pig, caged birds)
Habituation is “the process whereby an animal becomes accustomed to non-threatening environmental stimuli and learns to ignore them”.
Habituation involves exposing your puppy/kitten to different situations in the environment, like traffic, shops, crowds, travelling in the car, vacuum cleaners and any other common sights or sounds that your pet needs to cope with.
You must use a consistent and thorough approach to this training to avoid behaviour problems later on.
Recommended habituation experiences
• Environments: vets, houses, railway station, bus station, rural, built up, parks, highways, traffic
• Introduction to novel objects: household appliances, kids toys, animal toys,
• Introduction to novel sounds: airplane, fireworks, thunderstorms, babies
• Variety of experiences: grooming, exercise, examine by vet, going in a lift, travelling in car, bus and train
Good Citizen Dog Scheme
Dog owners can take advantage of The Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Dog Scheme which provides support for owners to train their puppy in how to cope with everyday life. There are four award levels: Puppy Foundation, Bronze, Silver and Gold.
Common behaviour problems in dogs
There are a very wide range of possible behaviour problems which you might encounter with your dog. The most common ones in puppies, adolescent and adult dogs are:
• Canine compulsive disorders – lick granuloma and self mutilation
• Elimination problems – marking, urination, incomplete house training
• Excessive barking
• Consumptive problems: coprophagia, pica, anorexia, obesity, excessive water consumption
• Getting on and off furniture
• Jumping up
• Leash control
• Object possession
• Food stealing
For geriatric dogs, problems also include:
• cognitive impairment (dementia)
• compulsive behaviour – pacing and circling
• noise phobias
Common behaviour problems in cats
Cats generally have fewer behaviour issues than dogs, but common ones include:
• feline compulsive disorders – hyperaesthesia, grooming, self-mutilation,
• Pica + wool sucking
• Elimination problems – marking, urination, incomplete house training
• Aggression toward people – fear, frustration, misdirected predatory
Possible causes of behavioural problems
• Normal species-specific behaviour in undesirable location
• Inappropriate learned responses
• Behavioural changes resulting from physical or mental illness
• Combination of the above
Where can I get help for my pet’s behaviour issue?
You can locate an animal behaviour specialist near you from the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (www.apbc.org.uk). APBC members will work with you and your pet only on veterinary referral.
This is because it is important that any potential underlying medical issues have been ruled out or treated that might be contributing to the undesirable behaviour.
Many behaviour specialists work only with dogs and/or cats but you can may also be able to get help for other pets such as birds or horses.
During the consultation, which can take place over the web if necessary, the specialist should ask about the pet, the family, the environment & the nature of the problem before creating a clear and agreed plan of action for the owner to implement. Ongoing support may be provided via phone, email or text during the treatment period.
Finally the animal behaviour specialist will provide a report back to your pet’s vet detailing the therapy.