How to talk to your pet

By: Miriam Osborne

Author: Canadian Living


How to talk to your pet

By: Miriam Osborne
Communicating with our furred four-legged friends can be a little tricky – even more so when it comes to your always-indifferent cat, who should come with his own training manual. Jessica O'Neill, a companion animal behaviour consultant in Ottawa, and Dr. Gary Landsberg, a veterinary behaviourist in Thornhill, Ont., offer ways of communicating with your dog (and maybe your cat, but only if you're lucky).

The dos and don'ts of pet communication
Don't: Yell at him when he's doing something bad.
Do: Use attraction sounds, such as a buzzing noise.
You can also say something like "pup, pup, pup" to grab your dog's attention if you catch him doing something he shouldn't, such as chewing on the couch, says O'Neill. Once he's looking at you, redirect his attention somewhere else (for example, give him a chew toy to play with). Says Landsberg: "Don't say, 'No, get off the couch,' but show him where he should go instead, such as a mat or dog bed." If he's chewing the legs of chairs or the sofa, offer him something else to gnaw on, such as a dog bone or chew toy.

Don't: Rely on just verbal cues or just action cues.
Do: Pair them together.
While most dogs respond to action cues (such as a hand motion for him to sit), verbal cues (such as "come" and "heel") are important for when he's not facing you, such as at the dog park or if he's in another part of the house. It's a good idea to use both: Use a hand motion for him to sit, and say "sit" at the same time.

Don't: Grab him by the collar.
Do: Gently guide him.
When directing your dog away from doing something you don't want him to do (jumping on the couch) to something you do want him to do (lying on his mat), grabbing him by his collar may scare him – he may react by growling or even biting. If you're in the early stages of training and at home, Landsberg recommends leaving the dog's leash on and gently pulling him to where he should be.

Page 1 of 2 – Find out why your tone of voice is crucial when talking to your pets on page 2.
Don't: Take good behaviour for granted.
Do: Reward him when he does what you ask.
Landsberg recommends giving high-level treats (such as a favourite food or toy) when first training, and then as he learns what you're asking of him, use treats intermittently but always praise the desired response.

Don't: Use animal sounds to get your pet to stop what he's doing.
Do: Teach him to understand specific human words, such as "sit" or "stay."
"Trying to communicate with our pets using meows or barks is frivolous," says O'Neill. Landsberg agrees. Since we really don't know what a cat is communicating when she hisses, we may be giving her the wrong message. Also, adds O'Neill, dogs understand human body language. If he's misbehaving and you move into his space, he'll know to back away.

Don't: Speak to your pet in a high-pitched tone when training.
Do: Keep a calm, firm voice.
A fast, high-pitched tone can stress some dogs. Speak in a conversational tone using short words, such as "sit," "stay" and "down."

Don’t: Be inconsistent with rules and commands in your home.
Do: Encourage everyone to use the same language.
If "sit," "stay" or "down" are words you use, then to make it easier for your pet to understand, everyone else in the house should use them, too.

Don't: Say "no," then leave it at that.
Do: Follow up with actions.
There's a comic strip where one dog says to another, "My name's 'No! Bad dog. No.' What's yours?" No is likely one of the most common words dogs hear. Follow up a "no," or a sound you make to interrupt your pet's bad behaviour, by directing him to what he should do instead. If you're house-training your pup, for example, and he starts to make a mess, stop him by saying "no" or gently pulling his leash and directing him outdoors. Once he's there, reward him.

Don't: Take experts' advice as the last word on raising your pets.
Do: Try different things to see what works for you and your pets.
Fact is, just as with parenting your kids, sometimes only you know what works and what doesn't. Landsberg reminds us that dogs are different from cats, and pugs are different from Labs are different from mixed breeds. What worked with one pet may not work with your current one.

This story was originally titled "How to Talk to Your Pet" in the September 2011 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

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How to talk to your pet