6 common mistakes pet owners can avoid

6 common mistakes pet owners can avoid

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6 common mistakes pet owners can avoid

There we were, standing in the veterinarian’s office with our brand new puppy, a cute-as-a-button Welsh terrier named Asti. “So,” the receptionist asked, “have you thought about pet insurance?” Of course not, we replied. She’s a terrier. She’s indestructible. We don’t need pet insurance. Big mistake.

Within months, she had visited the vet so many times, she was uninsurable. A decade later, Asti’s nicknames include Our European Vacation and My Retirement Fund. That’s the thing with pets: They offer us so many opportunities to mess things up. Luckily, most mistakes can be fixed. Here, pet experts offer solutions to some of the most common mistakes pet owners make.

Mistake 1: Skipping basic training
“We need to give our dogs activities and [teach them] manners, since we’re not at home enough for them to learn naturally,” says Andrew Perkins, owner of Best Friends Training in Mississauga, Ont., and spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers. “We need to give them outlets – playtime, daily walks – for the energy they don’t expend while we’re at work for eight hours.”

These outlets are also opportunities to encourage appropriate behaviour; for instance, when you only continue walking once your puppy stops tugging on the leash, it will train him not to pull, and when you give him attention only after he stops jumping up on you, he’ll learn not to jump up. You can find training advice through any number of sources, including classes, one-on-one sessions, books and videos. Here’s how to make the most of those opportunities.

Start early
“Puppies learn from the time they’re born,” Perkins says. “You can bring a dog to most classes at 11 or 12 weeks, once it’s had two sets of shots. It’s never too late to start, but the earlier you start, the more you’re training rather than fixing.”

Redefine your expectations
“Not all the training your dog will receive is about being obedient,” says Dorothy Litwin, owner of Animal Behaviour Services Canada in Toronto. A lot of obedience schools teach dogs fancy tricks and complex commands, but what’s really important is basic good behaviour, such as coming when called and playing well with other dogs in the off-leash park. “It’s almost like there are life skills and then there are ‘You have to walk on my right side and your head never comes past my knee’ skills.”

Tailor the training to your dog

“Dogs are pretty simple. If it’s fun and it works, they do it. If it’s not fun, they don’t do it,” says Kathy Gibson, dog behaviourist and owner of Custom Canine in Vancouver. “You know who your dog is. If it doesn’t feel right to you, it won’t feel right to your dog. So don’t do it.”
Mistake 2: Ignoring warning signs
The only way our pets can tell us something is wrong – whether it’s emotional or physical – is through their body language. “Pay attention and note any changes in the way your pet is eating or drinking, or how they’re acting or looking,” says Dr. Miki Shibata, a veterinarian in Nepean, Ont., and a member of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association

Q. What are some signals that my pet is under stress?
A. He may repeatedly lick his lips, pant heavily, yawn uncontrollably, put his ears back, cower, growl or snap. If you see any of these signs, remove your pet from the situation that’s causing the problem. If the behaviour continues, seek help from a professional.

Q. What are some signs that something is medically wrong?
A. There are many signs, including: increased thirst; licking, scratching or bothering a certain area on their bodies; unexplained weight changes; uncharacteristic behaviour that lasts more than a day or two; mysterious lumps; or unusual lethargy. If you see any of these, take your pet to the vet immediately.

Mistake 3: Not socializing your pet
“Socializing builds coping skills,” says Gibson. Poor socializing can leave a dog terrified and fearful – and fearful dogs often become aggressive ones.

Do: Introduce your puppy to new people, dogs and situations in a safe environment. Stay calm and remove your puppy from the situation before problems arise. “Just letting them know they’re safe takes care of 90 percent of the problem,” Gibson says. “If you do it properly, dogs see you as someone helping them have a good time.”

Don’t: Force dogs into situations that make them scared; for instance, off-leash parks where other dogs often display aggressive bullying behaviours. “Dogs are just like us,”says Gibson. “They want safety and comfort.”

Mistake 4: Giving too many treats
Doling out treats is the downfall of many loving pet owners, especially if they don’t have rules for when and why Fluffy gets those treats. “That can teach pets to beg indiscriminately when you’re eating,” Litwin says. “Or they might start to steal. And many people end up with portly pets.”

What’s worse, once the pattern has been established, it’s almost impossible to reverse. “It’s similar to gambling: The dog knows there’s a payoff at some point,” says Litwin. “The dog doesn’t know when he’s going to be rewarded, so he keeps trying harder and harder. It becomes really difficult to extinguish a behaviour like that.”

The only solution once you’ve established that pattern? Ignore the begging and whining – if you can. “It’s going to take a lot of time and patience on your part,” says Litwin.

Mistake 5: Not budgeting for a pet
As I learned with Asti, owning a pet is not cheap. You’ll need to budget for the following costs:
• Annual vet visits
• Shots, supplements and medications
• Emergency medical care
• Licensing fees
• Food and treats
• Gear, such as litter boxes, leashes, collars, toys, cat condos and dog beds
• Pet sitters, dog walkers or day care
• Grooming

And, of course, as Shibata points out, “It’s very important to have pet insurance if you would be hard-pressed to come up with $1,000 to treat an unexpected illness. It’s very sad for the owner, as well as the veterinary team members, when a pet must be humanely euthanized due to financial constraints, especially if the condition is 100 percent curable.”

Mistake 6: Not giving your pet enough attention
Julie Davidson, who runs A Walk in the Park Pet Care in North Vancouver, blames her husband, Colin Page. He was painting the living room one day and shut their cat, Garver, in the bathroom to avoid having a house full of kitty paw prints. Bored and bursting to go, Garver peed in the sink. Now he does it all the time. “He figures it’s convenient, so why not?” Davidson says with a sigh.

If pets are bored, Litwin says they will find some way to amuse themselves. After all, she points out, “Cats and dogs are quite intelligent and social creatures. Wild animals don’t spend their days just hanging around. It’s important to provide your pets with outlets.”

Here’s how to avoid coming home to find a shredded sofa or poop in your shoes. For your dog: Make sure Fido gets plenty of exercise: Hire a dog walker, have a neighbour check in or send him to doggie day care while you’re at work. For your cat: Make Fluffy’s environment more stimulating by setting up a scratching post, a cat condo and other things to climb and explore. For both: Provide plenty of toys, spend time playing with them and offer fun challenges like puzzles filled with treats.

This story was originally titled "Time to Own Up" in the September 2012 issue.

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6 common mistakes pet owners can avoid