How home environment, training, rewards can set pets up for success

  • Madeline Nagy, left, the adoption counselor at Dakin Humane Society in Leverett, introduces Jasmine, a dog up for adoption, to Stephanie Friedrick. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Madeline Nagy, the adoption counselor at Dakin in Leverett with Cuddles, a cat that was just dropped off for adoption.

  • Madeline Nagy, the adoption counselor at Dakin in Leverett with Toby, a dog that is up for adoption.

  • Nagy, plays with Cuddles, a cat that was just dropped off for adoption. GAZETTE STAFf/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nagy plays with Toby, a dog that is up for adoption at Dakin. GAZETTE STAFf/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Madeline Nagy, the adoption counselor at Dakin in Leverett with Toby, a dog that is up for adoption.

  • Madeline Nagy, the adoption counselor at Dakin in Leverett with Cuddles, a cat that was just dropped off for adoption.

  • Madeline Nagy, the adoption counselor at Dakin in Leverett with Toby, a dog that is up for adoption.

  • Elise McMahon, owner of Canine Headstart, who studied wolves as part of her research in animal behavior, is shown with two wolves. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Tuesday, August 08, 2017

A well-loved house pet brings years and years of joy, entertainment and companionship to its owners.

But untrained and poorly supervised pets can cause trouble inside and out of the home, jumping on furniture and on guests, clawing up the couch. If you want to get a pet but have misgivings about what damage it might wreak on your household, it’s wise to learn about how to set it up for success before you bring it home.

Picking a pet

The first step is picking an animal that is a good match for your own personality, lifestyle, and home environment.

Madeleine Nagy of Dakin Humane Society says staff members in the organization’s animal shelters can help people learn more about each animal to help them pick one out.

Humane society staff gather information about the animal and its home environment from the previous owners, and also assess how it behaves around people and other animals when it is in the shelter. Many animals live easily with children and other animals, but others do best in a quieter environment.

Nagy encourages people to think about what their home situation is really like before they decide on an animal.

“Some people want a puppy but don’t have the time to put into training a younger dog,” she said.

Aside from reading the profiles and asking questions of shelter staff, Nagy says it can be helpful to spend a little time with the animals to get a sense of their personalities. The shelter is, admittedly, a stressful situation for almost any animal. As a result, they may be more nervous in the shelter environment than they would after settling into a new home.

“People don’t often realize how loved these animals were by their previous owners who couldn’t keep them because they fell on hard times or had to move. It’s really hard on them when they are left behind in this strange new environment,” Nagy said.

One of the most difficult tasks at her job, she said, is doing intakes, because she empathizes with owners who are upset at having to surrender their pet, and then witnesses how hard it is, particularly for dogs as they watch their owners walk away without them.

“It always amazes me how resilient the animals are that they are willing and able to bond to someone new,” she said.

Dakin’s two shelters in Leverett and Springfield have a wide range of cats of all different ages from the local area. There are also some local dogs and many others that are brought up from the South where shelters are overpopulated.

In addition, there are a variety of small animals, including mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, and some more exotic species, such as sugar gliders.

Nagy says smaller animals can make terrific pets.

“I’m a gerbil person, myself” she said, adding that she has adopted quite a few gerbils and other small pets over the years.

Bringing the pet home

The transition into the home environment is a critical time for any new pet.

“The main point when you bring a pet home is to take it slow,” Nagy said.

Any resident animals in the house also need time to get to know the new creature, she noted.

To illustrate that idea, she said, “Just imagine what it would be like if you came down one morning for breakfast and there was a strange man sitting at your table eating breakfast. He may well be a very nice person after you get to know him, but your first reaction would probably not be to run up to him and welcome him into your home.”

Cats should be kept in a contained environment, such as a single room, at first. If there is another cat or dog in the house, you can slowly let them get acquainted with each other.

First, let each of the animals smell a cloth or toy that the other one has touched. If that goes well, then you can start feeding them on the other side of the closed door to the new animal’s room. If that goes well, then you can allow the animals to sniff each other with the door slightly ajar.

The entire process may take a week to 10 days or even longer before the new cat is allowed to roam through the entire house with the resident animals.

Nagy said dog introductions to resident animals should also be done in an incremental and highly supervised manner. Dogs will want to explore the new home, and are naturally going to wonder as they wander around what’s expected of them. They may try different things, such as jumping on a couch, just to see what the rules are.

Nagy says owners should be prepared to show dogs what’s expected of them from the outset to avoid problems.

Adjust the environment

Animal behaviorist Elise McMahon uses a positive reward system to shape behavior in dogs and other animals. McMahon, who owns Canine Headstart in Montague, works with clients throughout the Pioneer Valley, teaching them how to train their dogs so they are happier and easier to live with.

McMahon said it’s important to set up the home environment so that animals can be rewarded for behavior that is desirable, and not be able to continue behaviors that are not desirable.

For instance, when puppies are being house-trained, they have no idea at first what you want them to do, so you need to prevent them from having accidents in the house by taking them outside to relieve themselves at regular intervals. As long as the schedule is adhered to, most puppies quickly learn to do their business outside.

She encourages owners to develop a three-column list of behaviors. The first column includes all the dog’s current behaviors that are desirable. The second column, titled “oops,” lists the behaviors that you don’t like, and the third column is a “wish list” of the behaviors you want the dog to have.

McMahon says the list is very helpful for owners to see what behaviors they want to reward, which ones they want to shape, and which ones they want to try to prevent the dog from doing.

The list also helps all family members get on the same page, as the kids may think that the dog wrestling with them is desirable, whereas the parents may put that in the “oops” column.

She recommends that owners put the list on their refrigerator or other central place so that all household members can look at it from time to time, and it can be changed when behaviors on the “oops” column get crossed off, or those on the “wish list” get moved to the first column.

Food rewards

Food is often used as a positive reward for shaping behavior. McMahon says that when you’re training an animal, an entire day’s worth of food can be doled out bit by bit as positive rewards for good behavior. Dumping their daily food ration into a food bowl at one time is convenient for the owners, but may dampen the animal’s motivation to try new behaviors you want to reward and shape.

McMahon says that in certain distracting situations, such as when you take a dog to a class or out in public, you may want to use “high value treats” such as dried chicken meat to make sure you can keep their attention on you and the training process.

Food rewards can be used for any animal, not just dogs. For example, McMahon says that if you don’t want a cat to jump on the counter, you can put several spoonfuls of wet cat food on the floor, so that they walk into the kitchen and they are rewarded. Pretty soon, the cat starts walking on the kitchen floor instead of jumping on the counter, because that is where they are fed.

“Any time you can reward them for doing the behavior you want, go ahead and do it,” McMahon said.

She said it’s important for trainers to pay attention to all stimuli that dogs might find rewarding, not just food and praise.

For example, when a dog pulls hard on a leash, his owner may think he’s punishing that behavior by snapping back on the leash. However, if they continue walking, the dog may be positively rewarded by moving forward, even though he finds the owner’s pulling as slightly annoying. Moving forward only when the dog is paying attention is more likely to be successful in training them to walk without pulling.

Don’t go it alone

When you get a new dog, or when you have a dog that has behaviors that are not what you want them to have, McMahon said, working with a trained behaviorist is critical, either in classes or private sessions. McMahon recommends looking for trainers with certifications from Karen Pryor Academy, Certified Pet Dog Trainer or Association of Dog Trainers.

When it comes to puppies, particularly those under 16 weeks of age, McMahon said, there’s no substitute for puppy classes where they get needed socialization, as well as a jump-start on learning good behavior.

“If they’ve had a puppy in the past, some people think when they get a new puppy, that they don’t need classes, but these classes are to optimize the socialization of young puppies,” McMahon said.

For young dogs over 16 weeks and for other dogs, classes are still good for training. If a dog has behaviors that may preclude their participation in class, such as constant barking, some private work with a behaviorist is a good first step to get them ready to learn in a class setting.