Does Your Cat Care About You?

Does your cat care?  Admittedly, I am not much of a cat person.  So I am sometimes skeptical when my cat-loving friends and family tell me how much their cats love them.  After all, most of the cats I know tend to fit the stereotype of the self-interested and aloof.  Sometimes, however, a story breaks through the noise and proves too compelling to ignore.

The Warning

Do cats care enough to warn their owners of potential danger?  Maybe Boogey the tuxedo will convince you.

Boogey is a well-loved feline who is tightly bonded to his family.  Last week, his parents inadvertently shut Boogey in the bathroom when they left for work.  This can happen from time to time even in the best of homes, but it had never happened to our friend Boogey.   When his parents came home, Boogey was ecstatic to see them, and he seemed unfazed by his day in the bathroom. But he didn’t forget his experience.  Later that evening, when he saw his dad going into the bathroom, he came running.  He kept his body between his dad and the bathroom, cried out, and seemed to be making every attempt to keep his dad from entering the room.  He had never exhibited this type of behavior before.

Could it be that Boogey was trying to keep his human from being locked in the bathroom?  Was he warning him of potential danger?

Can cats remember experiences?

Scientists studying cat behavior and learning have made some intriguing discoveries that could provide insight into Boogey’s behavior.

First, scientists have demonstrated that cats can remember experiences, at least in the short-term.  This type of memory is called episodic memory in humans, and it demonstrates self-awareness.  Because scientists are not convinced that any animals are self-aware (apparently having never owned either cats or dogs), they refer to this type of memory as “episodic-like” in animals.

Scientists in Norway tested the ability of cats to remember experiences in the short term.  They tested 49 domestic cats.  In their experiment, they exposed the cats to four food bowls.  Two of the bowls contained food, and the other two were empty.  The cats were allowed to eat from the bowls with food, then they were removed from the room.  The food was taken out of the bowls, and the cats were allowed to explore the empty bowls after 15 minutes.  In the next phase of the experiment, the cats were exposed to two bowls filled with food, one with a non-edible item, and one empty bowl.  The cats were allowed to eat from one bowl.  Surprisingly, in both phases the cats spent less time exploring the bowls from which they originally ate.  This suggests that they remembered what was in those bowls and didn’t need to explore them further.  That they didn’t simply return to the bowls that had held food indicates they weren’t simply responding to a pleasurable experience. The study was published in the January, 2017 edition of Behavioural Processes.

This study could have been stronger had a control group of cats been exposed to four empty bowls as a negative control. However, even as an uncontrolled study it is interesting and suggests that cats can remember both “what” and “where,” at least in the short term.  So, Boogey could have remembered his bad experience in the bathroom.

Do cats really care about their humans?

In another study, researchers exposed adult cats, half from shelters and half pets, to stimuli in four categories: human social interaction, food, toy, and scent.  Although there was significant individual variability, human social interaction was the most preferred stimulus for a majority of the cats in both groups.  Food came in second.  It seems that for many cats, interaction with humans is more important than eating.  If human interactions are important to cats, then perhaps humans themselves are also important to them.  Boogey may have been acting out of concern for his pet parents.

This study demonstrates that cats care about interacting with their humans.  It doesn’t demonstrate that cats value their humans or act to protect them.  But stories like Boogey’s abound.  Can it just be coincidence or wishful thinking on our part? Did Boogey warn his parents of perceived danger, or was he just remembering a bad experience?  What do you think?  Does your cat care about you? Comment below and share your story.

When a Pet Must Go

Whatever the reason for relinquishment, it is almost always heartbreaking when a pet must go.  Add in the stigma and guilt that often accompanies the choice to give up a pet, and the situation can easily become a nightmare for the pet and the family.  The good news is that there are alternatives to giving your pet up to a shelter, and plenty of resources to help you through this difficult situation if you know where to find them.

Get help from a local shelter

As a first step if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t keep one of your pets, reach out to a local shelter.  Many shelters have special programs to help keep pets with their families, or they can direct you to other organizations as needed.  Often, there are free or low-cost ways to help you overcome a problem with your pet.  Shelter websites may link you directly to resources for your problem.

We talked to Casey Waugh, Communications Director for Wayside Waifs to learn more about the ways shelters can help.  Before the shelter takes an animal in, staff make every effort to keep the pet with the family.  At Wayside Waifs, staff don’t ever want a pet to feel like a burden to his pet parents.  The organization maintains a pet food pantry to help struggling families feed their pets, because staff never want a family to lose a pet due to the inability to afford food.  If the pet needs to be spayed or neutered, Wayside Waifs will point the family to low-cost or free veterinary care.

The shelter has a behavioral team that offers consultations for pets exhibiting some types of behavioral issues such as house soiling or aggression.  In some cases, the team may even make a home visit.

Use social media

If you are unable to resolve the issue with your pet, you may be able to successfully rehome her.  Reach out through social media. Creating a great bio can help you inform potential adopters about your pet’s history and highlight her personality.  The San Diego Humane Society has a fantastic rehoming kit that includes a template for your pet’s bio. Be sure to include a photo.  It can be intimidating to admit to your contacts that you need to rehome your pet.  But finding a great new home for her will be worth the effort.

List your pet with a breed-specific rescue group

Breed-specific rescue groups can match your pet with potential adopters.  These groups reach people with an interest in your pet’s breed.  These adopters are often well-acquainted with breed-specific issues and are prepared for challenges.

Surrender to a quality shelter

It isn’t always possible to rehome a pet on your own.  In those cases, a quality shelter with a reputation for compassionate animal care is the best option.  Most shelters will help you through the process. At Wayside Waifs, for example, you will be asked to complete a detailed application.  Information you provide about your pet will allow the shelter to provide the best care and to find the best new parents for your pet.  You may be asked to pay a nominal surrender fee.  These fees help care for your pet while she is in the shelter.

The shelter may not be able to take your pet right away, but be sure to talk to them if you are absolutely unable to keep the animal.  Some shelters work with foster families on a case by case basis to provide care in special circumstances. If for any reason your pet doesn’t qualify for surrender at a particular shelter, staff should help you find alternatives.

Jake, a success story

“If you don’t take him, I’m going to shoot him.” That’s how Jake, a 13-14 year old Golden Retriever who had been living outside on a farm, came to Wayside Waifs.  In this case, although there was no room in the shelter, Wayside Waifs made a place for him.  Jake was eventually adopted by one of the staff and enjoyed a very useful and happy life as a therapy dog with a great home. Sometimes, rehoming really is the best option.

This topic will be continued next week in a special post comparing two different adoptions.  We’ll discuss the ways that pet parents and shelters can approach the adoption process in order to prevent the need to rehome.

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His owner was going to shoot him, but Jake was successfully rehomed by Wayside Waifs.  Photo courtesy of Wayside Waifs.

It’s Train Your Dog Month 2018

It’s National Train Your Dog Month 2018, and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) has the resources you need for successful training. January is the perfect time to focus on training, because so many people get new pets over the holidays.

What is National Train Your Dog Month?

The APDT initiated National Train Your Dog Month in 2010.  The group aimed to promote awareness of the importance of socialization and training for dogs. The ADPT designs each NTYD month theme and resources to emphasize how rewarding and fun training your dog can be.  This year, the group is promoting training basic behaviors for the family dog.  These skills are covered in their Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S) program.  You can learn more about the types of basic skills your dog needs to achieve levels from Bachelors to PhD on their website.

What resources are available to pet parents during Train Your Dog Month 2018?

The APDT will offer free webinars throughout the month of January to help you teach your dog basic skills like sit, down, stay, wait, recall, and walking on a leash.  Be sure to follow them on Twitter at #APDTTrainYourDogMonth2018 and on Facebook to stay up to date on events and resources.  The NTYD website links to a wealth of free resources including training videos, tips, and more.   You will want to click through the website, because training tips and videos are located under several tabs.  On the homepage you will find several videos to get you started.

Where can I find a local trainer?

The APDT maintains a listing of member trainers with a convenient search feature.  Local trainers may offer discounted services and special training classes during January.   Use the quiet winter months to get a head start on training your new dog or brushing up your trusted companion’s basic skills.  It’s never too early or too late for training.

Image: Shutterstock.com

 

 

 

Dog Safety for the New Year

Many families get new dogs during the holiday season.  Whether you are a first-time dog owner or a seasoned puppy parent, following some simple tips for dog safety can help you keep your dog bite-free in the New Year and always.

Respect your dog as a dog

Fatal dog attacks made the news again in December and re-ignited the debate over what makes a dog dangerous.  Debate focused on specific dog breeds or types of mixed breed misses an important fact.  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.

Image: Shutterstock.com

Give Your Dog a Job This Winter

Getting in enough outdoor time and physical activity with dogs is a challenge in colder climates.  Boredom-related behaviors can increase during the colder months.  Make a plan to keep your dog active and engaged.  Dogs need structure in their daily lives, so give your dog a job this winter.  Helping your dog avoid cabin fever doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming.  Try these activities for 5 or 10 minutes a couple of times a day.  And remember to use small training treats to avoid overfeeding.

Basic Training Review

Dogs love to please you, and they enjoy completing even the simplest task.  Reviewing basic commands is a great way to give your dog a job. Take a few minutes each day to practice sit, down, stay, and other basic commands your dog may know. Reward your dog with sincere praise and small treats.  It’s even better if you can schedule this activity regularly so your dog has something to anticipate.  Give it a fun name like “game time,” and watch how excited your dog gets when you tell her it’s time to play. Our dogs particularly like the “leave it” game. This is a fun way to teach your dog to leave dangerous items alone on your command. Hold a small treat in each hand. Open one hand. When your dog moves toward the treat, close your hand and say “leave it.” When your dog looks you in the eye, give the treat that you are holding in the other hand. As a variation, put the treat under your foot.  (We learned this game at Gentle Dog Trainers in Overland Park).

Learn a New Trick

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Treat balance is always impressive!

Long winter evenings can be a perfect time to teach your dog that new trick you have been thinking about.  There are plenty of easy to train tricks based on dogs’ instinctual behaviors.  Start simple with army crawls, high fives, and belly-up.   If your dog is more advanced, move on to asking him to learn names, find objects, and pick-up and bring you things.  Mastered those?  Start training service dog tasks and dance moves!  One popular and always impressive trick you can teach your dog is to balance a treat on her nose, then toss and catch it on command.  You will be surprised at what your dog can learn with regular training time.  Just remember to set your expectations appropriately.  Your dog won’t learn advanced tasks overnight.

Buy or Make Some Puzzle Toys

Keep your dog busy with a puzzle toy when you aren’t around.  Dogs enjoy a challenge.  You can buy a variety of active dog toys from three-dimensional puzzles to simple Kong toys and peanut butter.  A variation that has worked well for us is “find the treats.”  If your dog is not crated when you are away, hide some treats before you leave.  Announce the game to your dog before you go out the door.  If you are more ambitious, you can make your own active toys.  You can find a great review with links to several projects at care.com.

Pay to Play

Pay to play is bad for politics, but great for dogs.  Throughout the day, ask your dog to perform a task before you feed or pet her.  She’ll look forward to your interactions and will learn not to expect handouts.  Not that handouts are bad, and we would never tell you not to pet your dog whenever you feel like it.  This is just a good way to stay in control of interactions with your dog.

What do you do to keep your dog active in the winter?  How do you give your dog a job? Share your ideas with our community as a comment.

Images: JCDoss and AdobeSpark.com