Category: behavior

Begging for Food: the Random Schedule of Reinforcement

Are you fed up with your pet’s constant begging for food? Chances are you are perpetuating the problem without even knowing.  It’s time to get off the random schedule of reinforcement.

Why is your pet begging for food?

Dogs and cats are programmed to respond to food cues.  In the wild, an animal never knows when it will get the next meal.  Instinct tells him that it’s literally a matter of life and death to get to your pot roast.  And it doesn’t hurt that your pot roast smells just as delicious to him as it does to you.

As your faithful subordinate, your pet will most likely wait and watch patiently until you finish that pot roast.  This is also an instinctual response.  Animals in packs or prides take turns eating, and your pet is certain that you will provide some of the leftovers.  But most of us really don’t enjoy being the subject of such intense scrutiny while we eat.  If there’s drool involved, we like it even less.

So we make firm rules, and we promise ourselves never to feed our pets from the table.

Just one bite, please!

The problem is that our pets are cute.  They know how to work us with the melting stare, the upraised paw.  When they beg, we respond.  We make eye contact, or we talk to them.  And, worst of all, we give them a handout.  Just that easily, a pet learns that begging for food is sometimes rewarded.

It doesn’t matter that you do not give in to your dog nine times out of ten, or 99 times out of 100.  What she remembers is that you gave in once.  It’s a little secret that casinos and lottery managers use with resounding success.

The secret is reinforcement

Reinforcement is a behavioral term for the process of encouraging a behavior through punishment (negative reinforcement) or reward (positive reinforcement).  Reinforcement is a powerful tool for intentionally training a new behavior.  Unfortunately, it’s also a powerful way to accidentally teach an undesirable behavior, like begging for food.

When you occasionally give in to your pet and reward begging with a scrap of table food or a treat, you engage in a random schedule of reinforcement.  As casino owners and lottery managers have learned, random reinforcement can be a very powerful behavioral motivator.  It’s what drives people to sit for hours in front of slot machines.  And it drives your dog to keep begging, time after time.

Get off the random schedule of reinforcement

If your pet begs for food, stop randomly rewarding her.  Set a strict no treats at the table rule and stick with it.  Enforce this rule with your children and your guests.   Remember that scolding your pet for begging rewards your dog with your attention. That is also a form of reinforcement.  It’s best to ignore your pet when she begs.

Until you train a new behavior to replace begging, your dog will continue to beg.  Here are some training tips to help curb begging.

Dogs
  1. Train your dog to go to another room or a kennel when people are eating.
  2. Train your dog to go to a specific location in the room and lie down or sit.
  3. Use a time-out when begging occurs.
Cats

Dogs aren’t the only pets that beg for food.  Cats are also notorious beggars.

If your cat is food obsessed, first make sure that there is not a medical reason. Older cats are prone to metabolic diseases, like diabetes mellitus and hyperthyroidism, that may cause them to feel ravenously hungry.

If your cat is healthy, try these tips.

  1. The best response to a begging cat is to ignore him.
  2. If the problem persists, move your cat out of the room at mealtimes.
  3. Feed your cat on a schedule.
  4. Never leave food on the table or kitchen counters.
  5. Never let your cat on the table or kitchen counters.

 

 

 

 

Why Is My Cat Sneering at Me? It’s Not Personal, It’s Flehmen

Why is my cat sneering at me?  Have you ever asked yourself this question?  Does your cat sometimes make a funny face that resembles a sneer or a grimace when smelling an object? It’s not personal.

The Flehmen response

If your cat appears to sneer, or grimace, with panting or open-mouth breathing, he may be exhibiting the Flehmen response.  The Flehmen response is a natural way for animals, including cats, horses, camels, and llamas to temporarily improve their sense of smell.

When an animal bares its teeth and curls its upper lip, it opens up two small ducts in the roof of the mouth. These ducts, called nasopalatine ducts, connect with a special olfactory (smell) organ in the nose.  This is called the vomeronasal organ.  This organ has different sensory cells than the ones found in either the nose or taste-buds.  The effect of using the organ is probably something between smelling and tasting.

Invoking the Flehmen response

The Flehmen response is usually associated with social or sexual interactions 1.  In cats, just as in other animals, the Flehmen response is associated with exposure to fluids.  Exposure to secretions from other cats most often initiates a Flehmen . Males use the Flehmen response more frequently than do females.  However, if female cats are left in a room with urine from another cat, they will use the Flehmen response.

So, if your cat is doing the Flehmen, it probably means he is sensing the after-smells of another cat.  If you work around cats during the day, your cat is very likely to give you the Flehmen when you get home.  Think of it as a “How was work? Did you meet any interesting people?” sort of interaction.  It’s definitely not personal.

You may learn more about the Flehmen response in cats and other animals at Slate.com.

Hart, B.L. and Leedy, M.G., Stimulus and hormonal determinants of flehmen behavior in cats, Hormones and Behavior, 1987.
Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

 

 

 

How Much Do You Know About Dog Bite Prevention? Take Our Quiz.

It’s National Dog Bite Prevention Week.  Each year the American Veterinary Medical Association partners with a coalition of companies and non-profits to present information about dog bites in the US and ways to prevent them. Because any dog may bite, and too many of them do.

How big is the problem of dog bites in the US?   The answers may surprise you.

National Dog Bite Prevention Week: How Much Do You Know About Dog Bites?

Take our quiz to learn more.  

Now that you know the basics, keep reading to learn more about ways you can help prevent dog bites.

Respect your dog as a dog

All dogs have the potential to be dangerous by virtue of their instincts as a predatory species. For this reason, you should never assume that any dog will not bite.  Dog breeds involved in fatal dog attacks in the US include those with a positive reputation as excellent family pets.

Although our dogs are beloved family members, it is important to remember that they are not human.  Dog parents should respect their dog’s natural tendencies.  Aggression is a natural and context-dependent behavior, according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (ASVAB).  Whether and how a dog expresses aggression is influenced by early environment, genetics, learning, and physical and mental health.

Understand your dog’s breed characteristics

Since 1998, dog bite reports do not not include breed information for many reasons including the difficulty of accurate breed identification.  However, this does not mean that breed-specific behaviors are not important.  Humans have bred dogs through many generations for specific character traits.  Working breeds such as border collies and German shepherds often strongly express such traits. Therefore it is important to know what types of behaviors your dog may express as result of her breed.  For instance, herding dogs have a strong tendency to chase moving objects.  Bites, especially to the lower legs, can be a result of overzealous herding behavior.  Learn more about the tendencies of specific dog breeds at the American Kennel Club (AKC).

Know your dog’s triggers

Dogs are individuals, and you will quickly learn your own dog’s triggers for aggression. Even if your dog does not generally express aggression, it is important to remember that any dog may lash out when pushed too far. There are certain triggers common to most dogs.  These include resource guarding (think food bowl, toys, and territory) and response to sudden or fast movements.  Consequently, people running, biking, or skating may trigger aggression. Dogs may learn other triggers as a result of adverse experiences.  For instance, a dog that has been punished by hitting may learn to snap at an outreached hand.

The key to preventing dog bites is to avoid these triggers.  Don’t become too complacent if your dog is very well-behaved.  Always be observant and react quickly if a situation arises.  For those living in apartments or dense urban housing communities, avoiding triggers may be especially important.  Check out our post on dealing with reactive dogs for some helpful tips to keep your dog safe.

Socialize early and often

For those of you lucky enough to have a puppy at home, the importance of proper socialization cannot be overemphasized.  Take your puppy to as many places as you can.  Find a puppy class near you.  Expose her to new situations. Join a social group.  In the Kansas City area, the KC Dog Club and the Bar K Dog Bar offer opportunities for socialization.

Most dog bites can be prevented by taking common-sense precautions.

Preventing dog bites doesn’t have to be difficult.  In most, but not all, dog-attack incidents, pet parents failed to follow basic, common sense rules for dog safety.

Always supervise your dog when small children are present.

Unfortunately, small children are often the victims of dog aggression.  Never leave a baby or small child alone with any dog. Period.  However, even a well supervised dog may bite.  If your dog stiffens, closes her mouth, or licks her lips, she may not be happy with her situation.  Learn how to recognize the signs of stress in your dog at the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

Always supervise your dog closely in novel situations.

Dogs are creatures of habit, and they like their routines.  Exposure to new places, people, or experiences can make dogs fearful.  When dogs are fearful, their threshold for aggressive response to triggers may be lower.

Do not chain or tie your dog outside.

Avoid chaining any dog, for many reasons.  A chained or tied-up dog can easily become protective of her limited territory. Chained dogs may also become frustrated and irritable.  Additionally, a chained dog is usually easily accessible from the street or sidewalk.  Therefore, a chained dog can easily become a recipe for disaster when a passer-by approaches the dog and is taken by surprise.  One thing is very clear.  Dogs that are kept outside (or inside) with minimal human interaction are more likely to express aggression.  Simply by making your dog an important member of your household you have taken an important step in minimizing dog bites or attacks.

Do not let your dog run free.

Your dog is your responsibility.  A dog left to his own devices can easily become dangerous, either to himself, local wildlife, or other people.  Always supervise your dog as you would your child.

Use an appropriate muzzle when needed

Don’t underestimate the value of a muzzle in preventing dog bites, especially if you know your dog may snap in certain situations.  You will find a good guide to types of muzzles and when to use them at the AKC.  Muzzles are always a temporary solution, and are no substitute for training and desensitization.

Seek professional help if your dog is aggressive

Finally, seek the help of a professional right away if your dog is aggressive.  All too often, dogs involved in bites or attacks have a history of aggressive behavior that their pet parents did not address. Don’t simply tolerate aggressive behavior.  Treat it before it becomes a problem. Dog aggression is a complex behavior, and professional help is almost always necessary to correct it.  Using the wrong techniques can cause the behavior to worsen, or may lead your dog to become aggressive to you.

You can learn more about National Dog Bite Prevention Week at the AVMA.

 

Image: Shutterstock.com

Is Your Dog a Canine Good Citizen?

Do you think your dog has what it takes to be a  Canine Good Citizen?

The American Kennel Club (AKC) certifies dogs as Canine Good Citizens (CGCs) through a training program and practical examination.  It’s not easy to be become a CGC!

The Test

The practical exam is non-competitive and consists of 10 parts. The examination items cited below are listed on the AKC CGC webpage.

  1. Accepting a friendly stranger.  Your dog will allow a stranger to approach and engage in friendly conversation with you.
  2. Sitting politely for petting:  Your dog allows a friendly stranger to pet her.
  3. Appearance and grooming: Your dog will permit someone other than you to check his front feet.
  4. Walking on a loose lead
  5. Walking through a crowd:  Your dog must demonstrate the ability to move comfortably on a leash through a crowded space with you.  You will move close to at least three different people, demonstrating that your dog is  under control at all times.
  6. Sit and down on command and stay in place.  You may choose whether your dog stays in “sit” or “down” position.
  7. Coming when called:  Your dog will come when called.  This will be a long-leash exercise and your dog will return from 10 feet away.
  8. Reaction to another dog:  Your dog will sit quietly when a person and another dog stop to engage you in friendly conversation.
  9. Reaction to distraction: The examiner will create two different distractions such as a dropped chair.  Your dog must remain calm and under control.
  10. Supervised separation:  This demonstrates that you are able to leave your dog with a caregiver.  You will give your dog’s leash to the evaluator and go out of sight for three minutes.  Your dog must not bark, whine, or show anything other than mild agitation or nervousness.

The Pledge

You will also be asked to take a pledge to commit to proper veterinary care, exercise, training, grooming, hygiene, and safety.  The aim of the pledge is to ensure that dog owners understand their dog’s needs and are dedicated to being good dog parents.

Training for the Test

Classes often start with basic obedience, and dogs progress to CGC qualification.  It’s easy to find an AKC training club through the AKC locator.  Even if there are no AKC clubs offering training classes in your area, there are probably local certified evaluators who can point you to a trainer.  We found several certified evaluators in the Kansas City area, and many trainers that offer classes.  You can find a list on our Resources page.

The Benefits

Why should you consider Canine Good Citizen training for your dog?  It’s a prerequisite for many therapy dog programs.  Certification is sometimes required to keep a dog in a rental property.  And getting your dog certified may make homeowner’s or renters insurance pet riders easier to get.  For owners of certain breeds, certification may be the difference between having and not having liability insurance for your dog.

And best of all, perhaps, when your dog is certified s/he gets to proudly claim the title CGC.