Counseling new puppy and kitten owners (Proceedings)


Canine and feline behavior problems can be a real challenge to correct, but with a little forethought and the right information, owners can easily prevent most common problems.

Canine and feline behavior problems can be a real challenge to correct, but with a little forethought and the right information, owners can easily prevent most common problems. Many owners begin their relationship with the new pet armed with misinformation and an idealistic view of the pet-owner relationship. Individuals in the pet health care profession have many opportunities to help owners get off to a good start. You can't take for granted that the owners know how to properly shape behaviors or handle problems, you need to ask what they know so you can help them promote good behavior and a good relationship with the new family member.

Educating the New Owner

Be sure to take advantage of the young pet's initial vaccination visits to educate the new owner about behavior concerns. By attaching a checklist to each new pet's record, you can insure that no important topic is missed, even if a different doctor sees the pet for each visit. The counseling does not necessarily need to be done by the veterinarian. Another qualified staff member can meet with the owners and the pet before or after they visit with the doctor. A full explanation of elimination training, socialization and prevention of destructive behaviors should be given, booklets and other handouts should be provided as well as a reading list for those who want to learn more about shaping the pet's behavior to its full potential. As the pet owner returns for successive visits, questions should be asked about the pet's progress and whether there are any problems that need attention.


Dogs and cats both have a critical period in their lives when they learn to interact with members of the same and other species. In dogs, that period is between four to twelve weeks of age. In cats, it is between approximately two to seven weeks of age. After these periods, their ability to develop confidence in interacting with other living beings gradually decreases. During the early months of life, puppies and kittens need to have as many positive experiences as possible with members of the same species and other species with whom they will live. Puppies and kittens need to be around humans of all ages and appearances in order to reduce the likelihood of shyness and fear aggression. Be sure to counsel owners without children to provide adequate, supervised interaction with children at a young age. It is not uncommon for young couples to have problems when they start their family because the pet has never been socialized to children.

Rules for Training Young Pets:

I. Don't take good behaviors for granted

The best way for the pet to learn to do what the owner wants it to do is by rewarding it when it has done something acceptable. The owner should actively look for desired behaviors so that the pet can be praised.

II. Set the pet up to succeed

Most kittens and puppies engage in quite predictable behaviors. They are active, inquisitive and get into everything. Puppies will eliminate anywhere and chew on everything until trained. Young kittens tend to spend a good part of the time scratching things and scampering around, knocking objects off of shelves and counters. It is up to the new pet owner to prevent mistakes by moving things out of reach and providing proper training. Close supervision or appropriate confinement may constantly be necessary for some pets until they reach two years of age. The young pet has a short attention span and is easily distracted. Owner's set it up to fail if they train too long or ask it to do something in the presence of a strong distraction. Owner education concerning what behaviors to expect from young, growing pets and how they should be handled is of utmost importance.

III. Be consistent

The whole family needs to sit down and agree upon which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. It is very important that all members handle specific behaviors in the same way. If the family or an individual is inconsistent, the pet will be confused, learning will be delayed and anxiety may result in serious behavior problems.

IV. Avoid Punishment

Owners must understand that if they strike the pet, the consequences can be disastrous. Handshyness, fear-biting, avoidance of humans, aggression and submissive urination may all result from physical punishment. One of the most important things that the pet must learn is that the human hand is a friend. A loud, abrupt, semi-startling reprimand is usually adequate to interrupt an undesirable behavior by a young pet. To be effective, the correction must be given during the behavior, every time the behavior occurs, should be intense enough to stop the behavior without causing significant anxiety and should stop when the behavior stops. If necessary, the owner can use a shake can, air horn, whistle or other device if the pet ignores verbal corrections. The owner should not rely on punishment alone to shape the pet's behavior. Alternate, desirable behavior should always be reinforced.

For behaviors that occur when the owner is not present, environmental devices can be used to keep a pet away from areas where undesirable behaviors might occur.

Upside down mouse traps

ScatMat ®

Scraminal ® - motion activate alarm

Snappy trainers ®

Spray Barrier ®


  • No physical punishment

  • Timing

  • Intensity

  • Consistency

  • Must stop when the behavior stops

  • Avoid association with the person

Always reinforce alternate, desirable behaviors


Housetraining can be very smooth if the owner follows these simple rules:

I.Teach the puppy where to go

The speed at which the pup learns where it is supposed to eliminate depends on how consistently the owner accompanies it to the proper elimination area and praises it.

II. Control access to food and water

Feed the puppy twice daily (three times for small breeds) at the same time every day. Only leave the food down for twenty minutes. Do not feed for three to four hours prior to bedtime. Take the water up one to two hours prior to bedtime.

III. Adequate supervision and confinement

Until the puppy has not soiled in the house for four consecutive weeks, it must either be under constant supervision by a family member who is actually watching it at all times or must be confined to a crate or a small room. A leash can be an important tool for preventing the pup from sneaking away. Inadequate supervision and confinement are the most common reasons for failure to housetrain the puppy.

IV. Teach the pup to signal when it has to eliminate

This can be done by frequently keeping the pup on a leash indoors, especially during times when it is likely to have to eliminate. Puppies quickly learn to sneak away from the owner to eliminate so they can avoid a scolding. When the puppy is prevented from sneaking away, it will become anxious and vocalize or fidget. Since the owner is nearby, these behaviors will be noticed and the pet will be taken outdoors. It doesn't take too many repetitions of this scenario for the pup to learn that being close to an owner and vocalizing or fidgeting results in a trip outdoors.

V. Odor control

Use a good commercial product made specifically for pet elimination odors. I have found K.O.E.™ (Thornell Corporation) to be an inexpensive, very effective product. (For very strong odors, it can be mixed to a concentration of one ounce of the product in one quart of water)

VI. Punishment

Punishment should be avoided. The only correction permitted is a loud "No" used to interrupt the pet when it is caught in the act of eliminating in an inappropriate area. Submissive or greeting urination should never be punished.

Leadership Exercises

Purpose of these exercises:

  • Gain more control of the pet

  • Increase the pet's dependability in responding to commands

  • Provide structure and consistency in the interaction between the pet and family members

  • Reduce impulsive behavior

You will want to keep these rules in place until you have good control of the pet and it dependably listens and responds to commands. In most cases, this will be at least four to six weeks before going back to your usual interaction with the pet. Consistency is very important. The whole family must participate and follow the recommendations in the same way.

1. Nothing in life is free

a. Ask the pet to respond to a command, such as "Sit," prior to getting anything it wants or needs. (Before putting food down, giving treats/toys, beginning play, petting, allowing on furniture, picking up, etc.)

2. Don't tell me what to do

a. Do not allow the pet to successfully solicit attention from you.

b. Any nudge, whine, bark, push, nudge, lean, etc. for attention must be ignored. Pull your hands in, lean away from the pet and look away from it. Get up and walk away if the pet is exceptionally pushy and difficult to ignore.

c. Do not scold, say anything or push the pet away from you.

d. Once the pet stops soliciting for ten seconds, you can ask it to sit or sit/stay and give it some attention.

e. Another strategy is to take control by asking the pet to sit as it walks up to you, but before it attempts to be pushy for attention.

3. Don't move without permission

a. Anytime you begin to move from one area of the home to another, ask the pet to sit/stay and wait for a release command to follow you.

b. Also request a "Sit/stay" prior to going up and down stairs, as well as in and out of the home.

c. You only need for the pet to stay for one to two seconds, and you do not need to walk away form the pet during the stay to do this properly.

d. It is not as necessary to be as rigid about this rule as the previous two. It is understandable that it may be difficult or impractical to have the pet sit/stay every time you move.

Destructive Chewing - Dogs

Controlling the destructive chewing propensities of a young puppy is of utmost importance for pet owners. Most owners tend to rely solely on punishment to correct unacceptable chewing behavior, so they need to be taught that it is more effective and more humane to correct the problem by reinforcing desirable behavior. This can be done by providing the puppy with a safe environment in which it has sufficient outlets to explore, and safe, interesting toys to chew. Since an excess of unused energy can further contribute to the desire to explore, chew, and destroy, plenty of play and exercise is a must for all puppies.

Selecting appropriate chew toys

When selecting chew toys, the owner should begin with a variety of toys and determine which types the pup prefers. If the owners rotate through different toys every few days, they can help keep them novel and interesting. Be sure that the owners reward the dog every time they see it chewing its toys by giving it affection, play or a tiny bit of puppy kibble. Toys made of sheet rawhide, nylon, and durable rubber are most practical. Toys that have cavities or depressions can be packed with food to capture the pet's attention (Kong Toy®, Bite-A-Bone®). Applying a light coat of meat juice or cheese spread to toys will also help make them interesting and extend the length of time that they keep the pet occupied.

Preventing and deterring inappropriate chewing

Even with an excellent selection of appealing chew toys, there are numerous household items that may still be more inviting than the chew toys themselves. Until the owners can trust the pet (this may not be until the pet is 18 to 24 months of age), it must be under constant supervision or confined to a safe area (e.g. dog crate or exercise pen). They must be counseled to never give items to the puppy to chew that are similar to household items. Providing objects such as old clothing can lead to problems since the puppy may have difficulty distinguishing between old clothing and new clothing. As the puppy grows older and is allowed more freedom around the home, the owners may need to take extra care to prevent mistakes. They can teach the pet to avoid their possessions by making them taste bad. Commercial anti-chew sprays, oil of citronella or a small amount of cayenne pepper, mixed with water and applied to the objects, may be successful deterrents. Booby traps (e.g. motion-detector alarms) can also be used to keep the pet away from areas or items that need to be protected when the owners are unavailable to supervise. Since owners often resort to inappropriate punishment techniques, they may need to be persuaded not to use methods that include harsh or delayed corrections.

Chewing on Plants

Plant leaves can be misted with water and sprinkled with cayenne pepper to discourage chewing. Motion-activated alarms can be hung in large plants or Christmas trees to teach the pet to avoid them.

Destructive Scratching – Cats

Teaching the cat to use a scratching post

1. Find a post with a surface that the cat likes that is stable and tall enough for the pet. Besides commercial carpet-covered posts, try a fireplace log secured to a plywood base or a rope-covered post. Every time the pet approaches the post, toss a very small treat to it. When it touches the post, toss a bigger treat, and when it scratches give it a big treat.

2. Keep the pet within eyesight at all times when you are at home. Whenever it starts to scratch furniture, interrupt the behavior with a water gun, or toss a bean bag NEAR it. Don't say anything or look at the pet when you do this.

3. Whenever you can't watch the cat (out of the home, busy or sleeping), confine it to a room without objects that it will likely scratch except its scratching post. Once you notice that it is frequently scratching the post on its own, gradually start allowing it some freedom without supervision.

4. To keep from scratching furniture when you are not around, try one or more of these:

a. Hang a movement detector alarm on the corner of the furniture

b. Hang a towel over the side of the furniture with six empty aluminum cans on top of the towel. When the cat scratches, the cans will tumble down.

c. Attach balloons to the side of the furniture. Hang a short ribbon on each balloon so the cat will swat at the ribbon and pop the balloon.

d. Cover the furniture with plastic or canvas drop cloths.

e. Attach a tissue with a strong citrus fragrance to the side of the furniture.

f. Apply Sticky Paws ™ to furniture (double stick tape)

Soft Paws ® can also be nails and used during the training period g period g period g period to cover the cat's nails and protect furniture.

Another common, destructive kitten behavior is chewing on plants. This can be corrected by misting the plants with water and sprinkling cayenne pepper on the damp leaves.

Pulling on Lead

Head halters: Excellent tools for controlling this problem behavior (Gentle Leader, Halti, Snoot Loop)

No-Pull Halters: Most of these devices apply pressure to the axillary to inhibit pulling on lead. They provide less overall control than the head halters, but may better tolerated and by some dogs than a head halter.


1. Training the "Quiet" command

Training a dog to be quiet on command requires that the dog first be barking. Training will therefore be most successful if you can anticipate a situation when the dog will bark (e.g. children playing, knocking at the door, etc.) so that you can be prepared to quiet the dog on command.

As soon as you hear even the smallest first woof, say "Quiet," call the dog to you, ask it to "Sit" and praise a quiet response.

If the puppy doesn't listen and barks after you ask it to be quiet, immediately shake a shake can or sound an air horn as you repeat the "Quiet" command. If the volume is correct for the temperament of the pet, it should immediately stop barking and show a slight startle response without acting afraid.

Another alternative is to leave a head halter and leash attached to the dog. If the dog does not immediately become quiet on command, then a quick pull on the leash and head halter can guide the dog into a quiet sitting position. This is followed by a release of tension on the lead to indicate the correct response has been achieved.

2. Encouraging quiet behavior

Watch the dog for a calm, quiet response and provide attention, affection, play or food to encourage this behavior.

Barking must not be reinforced with any form of attention, affection, food or play. Any attention that does not stop the barking, may actually serve to reinforce the behavior. If barking cannot be stopped, it should be ignored until the dog is quiet, and then reinforcement can be given.

Yelling, physical punishment, or the owner's agitated or anxious behavior may further aggravate the dog's barking and anxiety.

Use of a bark-activated device (audible alarm, citronella spray bark activated collar) may inhibit barking in some dogs. Once the barking stops, the owner should then immediately distract the dog with affection or a favored treat or toy so that the quiet behavior can be reinforced and barking is less likely to recur.

Avoid leaving the puppy outdoors unsupervised for long periods. It may be stimulated to bark by passing stimuli (other dogs, strangers) or may bark to attract your attention. Opening the door or going out to the dog, even to settle the dog down, will only serve to reinforce the barking behavior.

3. Anxiety-induced barking

When barking arises out of anxiety, the treatment program will need to be designed to address the underlying cause of anxiety as well as any factors that might be reinforcing or aggravating the problem.

For owner absent barking problems, the Gentle Spray Collar™ (citronella spray) is an effective, humane product.


Even though dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, each new puppy that comes into our world must learn about humans. Socialization is the process during which puppies develop positive relationships with other living beings. The most sensitive period for successful socialization is during the first three to four months of life. The experiences the pet has during this time will have a major influence on its developing personality and how well it gets along with people and other animals when it grows into adulthood. It is very important for puppies to have frequent, positive social experiences during these early months in order to prevent asocial behavior, fear and biting. Puppies that are inadequately socialized may develop irreversible fears, leading to timidity or aggression. This is not to say that socialization is complete by four months of age, only that it should begin before that time. Continued exposure to a variety of people and other animals, as the pet grows and develops is an essential part of maintaining good social skills. It is also extremely important that your new puppy be exposed to new environments and stimuli at this time (e.g. sounds, odors, locations) to reduce the fear of "the unfamiliar" that might otherwise develop as the pet grows older.

Puppy Socialization

Attending puppy classes during this primary socialization period is an excellent way to ensure multiple contacts with a variety of people and other dogs. This relatively new concept in training involves enrolling puppies early, before they pick up "bad habits," and at an age when they learn very quickly. Puppy training and socialization classes are now available in many communities where, in some cases, puppies can be admitted as early as their third month. These classes can help puppies get off to a great start with training, and offer an excellent opportunity for important social experiences with other puppies and with a wide variety of people.

It is important for every puppy to meet as many new people as possible in a wide variety of situations. It can be beneficial to ask each person who meets the puppy to give the puppy a biscuit. This will teach the puppy to look forward to meeting people and discourage hand-shyness since the puppy will learn to associate new friends and an outstretched hand with something positive. Once the puppy has learned to sit on command, the family should have each new friend ask it to sit before giving the biscuit. This teaches a proper greeting and will make the puppy less likely to jump up on people. The family should make certain that the pet has the opportunity to meet and receive biscuits from a wide variety of people of all ages, appearances and both sexes during the early formative months. Every effort must be made to see that the young pup has plenty of opportunities to learn about children. Kids can seem like a completely different species to dogs since they walk, act, and talk much differently than adults. Puppies that grow up without meeting children when they are young may never feel comfortable around them when they become adults.

And last, but not least, the family should avoid physical punishment and any interactions with people that might make the puppy anxious. Harshly punishing a young pet will damage its bond with the person and weaken its trust in people. Techniques such as swatting the pup, shaking it by the scruff, roughly forcing it onto its back, thumping it on the nose and rubbing its face in a mess should never be used. Pets that are raised using these methods may grow up to fear the human hand, and are likely candidates to become fear biters. In general, any interactions with people that might make a puppy anxious should particularly be avoided during the early months of its life.

Food Bowl Guarding

In most cases, this can be prevented by spending time with the puppy during its dinner to teach it that it is not at risk for losing its food.

Discourage competition

  • Unrestricted allotments and access to food for pups in the litter

  • Equal access to toys and treats

  • Feed enough so the pup is not hungry

Early handling of the pet and food

  • Walk by and drop small pieces of meat or canned food into the bowl while it is eating

  • Feed on the floor with the bowl in your lap

  • Slip small pieces of meat or canned food into the bowl as the pup eats its kibble

  • Hold the bowl when it is eating and occasionally pull it away just long enough to slip meat or canned food into it, then give it back

Avoid harsh training methods


Early obedience training


Food Lure Obedience Training

There are many advantages to teaching the puppy to come and sit on command during one of its early visits to the veterinary hospital. Using food-lure-reward methods, this can be done in about five minutes. Stand two feet away from the puppy, show it a piece of food held between your thumb and forefinger and wiggle your fingers. As the pup approaches, say its name and call it. When the pup reaches the food, slowly and deliberately move it over the top of its head. As the pup moves its head back to follow the food, he will move into a sitting position. As he does this, say "Sit." Be careful not to hold the food too high over the head as this may encourage the pet to jump up for it.

Why spend exam room time to teach obedience commands? Well, when the pet learns to obey commands at a very early age, it will help the owner establish leadership, gain control of the pup and serve as a tool for socializing. Teaching the "Come-sit" decreases jumping-up behaviors because the pup learns to approach and greet by sitting. It also decreases handshyness by associating an outstretched hand with a food reward. That's a big return for a five minute investment!

Most of a pet's learning occurs by simply having stimuli it likes or dislikes associated with the behavior. Behaviors of the pet that are associated with something it likes have a high likelihood of being repeated and behaviors that are associated with something aversive are likely to disappear. Timing is very important. Punishment that occurs too late (more than a few seconds after the behavior) will be ineffective and may lead to other problems. For example, a destructive dog that is harshly disciplined for its misdeeds when it greets the owners each day may start submissively urinating near the front door in anticipation of the daily beating. On the other hand, when a reward is given at an inappropriate time, undesirable behaviors may be reinforced. The owner who gives an energetic greeting to a pup that is excited and bouncing off the walls is reinforcing unruly greeting behaviors.

Puppy Classes

One of the most beneficial and appreciated services that you can offer to owners of young puppies is a puppy training class. Working with puppies in a class situation has special advantages. You get a better idea of how the pup interacts with the family in situations outside the exam room. It allows you to closely follow the pup's progress and help the owner as problems arise. The classes are also very good for socializing the pups to humans as well as other puppies. The other benefits of puppy classes are that they teach the puppy to look forward to visiting the hospital, they generate revenue and they make good press for a public relations program.

Counseling New Kitten Owners

Don't take for granted that owners know about litterbox care and housesoiling problems. They need to learn to avoid indiscriminately changing between types of litter, that the box needs to be in an area with some privacy and that the box should be cleaned frequently. It is wise to recommend close supervision or confinement for the first two to four weeks after the young kitten is adopted.

A large amount of kitten play involves aggressive behavior. If the kitten doesn't have peers with which to play, aggressive play directed toward family members may become intolerable. Owners should not encourage kittens to play-attack hands or fingers. Interesting toys should be provided, and interactive play should involve tossing toys or moving toys on strings or sticks for the kitten to chase. Ping pong balls and walnuts will provide inexpensive entertainment for most kittens. Physical punishment and rough handling often tend to increase the play-attack behaviors. An effective punisher for most kittens is a blast from a compressed air canister (photography store).

The owner may need instruction on how to introduce the new kitten to the resident cat. An initial week of isolation for the new kitten is smart from a behavioral and medical point of view. During the following week, the resident cat and the kitten should alternately be confined and allowed free run of the house at different times. Additional feeding and elimination stations should be provided in areas where a cat will not be trapped while using them. The first introduction should be at opposite ends of the largest room in the house. If nothing more than a little hissing and posturing occurs, their relationship will probably develop without more help from the owner. As a precaution, the owner should supervise when home and continue to separate for about two more weeks. If chasing or fighting occurs, the pets should be separated and reintroduced at a later date, perhaps seven to ten days later.


Whatever you do in the way of counseling new pet owners, remember that early information about behavior can make a big difference in the relationship between the pet and the owner. Behavior problems are much easier to prevent than to correct and owners need reliable help to weed through conflicting and inappropriate training information. Everybody wins when we take the time and effort to provide timely behavior counseling. The owner are more likely to have a well behaved pet, we are more likely to have a manageable patient and the pet is more likely to remain an important part of the family.


Ackerman L, Landsberg G, Hunthausen W (Eds.): CAT BEHAVIOR AND TRAINING: Veterinary advice for owners. TFH Publications, Neptune, NJ, 1996.

American Animal Hospital Association Behavior Pamphlets, 12575 W. Bayaud Ave., Lakewood, CO 80228, 1-800-252-2242

Dunbar I. Sirius Puppy Training. Very helpful if you plan to start your own puppy classes. Includes control of play-biting, bite inhibition, handling exercises, establishing leadership and socialization. It also contains some tips on housetraining, chewing problems and obedience training for puppies. James and Kenneth Publishers. 2140 Shattuck Ave #2406, Berkeley, CA 94704 (510) 658-8588

Dunbar, Ian. Doctor Dunbar's Good Little Dog Book. (1992) James and Kenneth Publishers. 2140 Shattuck Ave. #2406, Berkeley, CA 94704 (510) 658-8588

Hart BL, Hart LA. The Perfect Puppy, NY: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1988

Tortora D. The Right Dog for You. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1983

Gentle Leader™ / Promise™: (head collar), Premier Pet Products, 527 Branchway Rd., Richmond, VA, 23236, 800-933-5595, Canada: Professional Animal Behaviour Associates Inc., P.O. Box 25111, London, Ontario, N6C 6A8, 519-685-4756, Video an training booklet available.

Scidmore K and McConnell PB, Puppy Primer, published by Dog's Best Friend, Ltd., P.O. Box 447, Black Earth, WI 53515, 608-767-2435, 1996

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