What is appropriate behaviour from your pet?

2013-05-02 00:00

A PUPPY is not a child. If we could only realise that, many so-called problems experienced with new pets could be averted.

In the wild, young animals learn about survival from older animals through a combination of instinctive and then remembered behaviour. When a puppy enters our home, it comes wired to survive as best it can, but unfortunately we interact with our pets as if they are children. Sadly, this is the time when many human-pet relationships are already doomed to fail. This is largely due to our vastly different instinctive and emotional intelligences.

There are basically two things that we need to know about our pet’s behaviour. Is it appropriate, or inappropriate? This can only be achieved with the right knowledge and experience. One of the biggest contributors to unsuccessful interspecies cohabitation is our inability to distinguish between our dog’s instinctive and learnt behaviour. That which is deemed appropriate by our best friends can be the total opposite in our estimation. Indoor soiling is a typical example. It is instinctively unnatural for a puppy to eliminate near its immediate sleeping place, but if access to grass or sand is denied, the inevitable is that relief will occur inside the house. To us this is inappropriate from the hygiene perspective. To the perpetrator, it was the only option available and from a moral, or cleanliness point of view, quite acceptable.

Another example is the introduction of a new puppy or rehomed pet to the resident dogs. So many people have contacted me for assistance after failed attempts to integrate a new canine member into the existing pack. Fitting in with humans is pretty straightforward, but when the existing pack meets the new stranger, it is a totally different ball game.

For example, two dogs of similar size, possessing adequate social skills, will instinctively produce body language, statically and dynamically, which is designed to indicate an intention to dominate. Static would be staring, tails erect and wagging, four feet planted solidly on the ground, hackles raised and releasing of pheromones to indicate status as processed via sense of smell. Typical dynamic actions would be sudden change of position, play bows, jumping onto backs, rolling over and running away or chasing. Even at this stage many pet owners become anxious, so when teeth are bared, accompanied by growls, it can lead to immediate termination of the introductory process.

When conducting behaviour assessments for aggression, I use my pets to test the social skills of the patient dog. One could safely say, that in these situations, an introduction is busy taking place. The only factor that prevents this process from occurring naturally is a separating barrier, especially where the owner’s presence is a catalyst for the aggression. Growling and exposed teeth are natural forms of communication between dogs and there are certain clues to look for when making a determination between appropriate social skills or abnormal aggression. In more than 90% of situations I prove to pet owners that the so-called inappropriate aggression is, in fact, quite normal. However, due to interference, the aggression has become more frequent and intense, which quite often has resulted in injuries, or, even worse, death.

Please contact me or your vet’s practice should you need assistance.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist. He can be contacted at www.dogtorsteve.co.za. Advice is only dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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