Curb pet's behavior by understanding it

November 2010 / Centre Daily Times / State College, PA

As the holiday season approaches each year, I have many worried pet owners contacting me about their dog or cat's aggressive behavior toward visitors to the home. With family and friends coming in and out, sharing meals, and opening gifts, many pet owners are spending their time nervously eyeing their furry or fluffy friend, scurrying them away if someone gets too close - or not moving fast enough and then tending to a bite or scratch on their guest's arm or leg. 

Aggression is the most common behavior problem among dogs and second only to house soiling among cats. Many cats and dogs are adorably affectionate with immediate family, but quite unpredictable (or predictably aggressive) with visitors to the home. Nationwide, an average of 2 million dog bites per year can cost more than $30 million in health care, and dog bites are one of the most common causes for emergency room visits among children. Millions of cats and dogs are relinquished to animal shelters each year, and behavior problems such as aggression are the most common cause for their relinquishment.  

Animal behaviorists do not speak of a "cure" for aggression but instead teach owners how to understand it, reduce its frequency and intensity, and work to change the motivation for it. Any cat or dog has the propensity to bite, given the right circumstances, and what differs across pets is their threshold for tolerating different stimuli or situations. Therefore, when working with pets who have exhibited aggression, the first step involves uncovering the function of this aggression - what purpose this behavior serves for the pet. The second step involves elucidating the antecedents, or triggers, for the behavior and discussing ways in which these triggers can be eliminated, modified, or controlled. With this understanding of where, when, and why the aggression occurs, animal behaviorists can then help pet owners arrange scenarios in which training and behavior therapy can take place. 

With cases of aggression toward visitors, volunteers often are needed to help in arranging these training scenarios, while the animal behaviorist guides the pet owner on how to provide the appropriate consequences for his or her pet's behavior. As one of two choices in an animal's fight-or-flight response, aggression often is a product of fear, and pets must be taught instead to look forward to the approach of new people. This can be accomplished by teaching the pet to remain relaxed in the presence of others, usually beginning with visitors at a nonthreatening distance and then gradually bringing them closer while the pet remains calm, relaxed, and with its attention redirected to the owner. Treatments for aggression always are individualized, and follow from a detailed assessment of the problem. 

With no "quick fix" for aggression, there is little one can do during the actual holiday gatherings, when owners are distracted and pets often are overwhelmed. Although many pet owners work with their animal behaviorist throughout the holiday season, training sessions should be scheduled when pet owners can focus exclusively on their pet's behavior. While those meals are shared and those gifts are opened, it is better to keep your pet temporarily out of the situation to prevent an aggressive incident, but do contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist if you are in need of long-term behavioral change for your aggressive or fearful pet.