Vets Say People Need to Understand Their Pets

Campbell points out that abandoned cats soon turn to their old ways, resuming the role of the natural predator, and that's one reason she cites rampant population growth as the No. 1 problem in the pet arena.

"There are simply too many people who allow their dogs and cats to breed without figuring out if they are going to have homes for the offspring," she says. Thus many animals are abandoned, some of which become public nuisances.

Punishment Often Futile

Nowhere does our lack of understanding of pet psychology show up more than in our frequently failed efforts to get our animals to behave properly. Some people think discipline is the only way. That really bugs animal behaviorist Andrew Luescher of Purdue University, whose research shows that pets, especially dogs, can suffer from as many psychological disorders as humans.

That's especially true of dogs suffering from canine compulsive disorder, which is frequently revealed by such things as tail chasing, licking excessively, and barking monotonously.

That's a stress and anxiety problem, Luescher says. So how does the typical dog owner react? By disciplining the dog for all that monotonous barking.

"Punishment increases that stress and anxiety to the point that the behavior only gets worse," Luescher says.

But, Campbell asserts, that doesn't mean that discipline has no role in training a pet. It has to be done right, and quite often pet owners wait too long. When you come home from work and find that the pooch pooped on your prized Oriental carpet early in the day, that's not the time to whack him.

"It does absolutely no good to punish them when you come home two hours later," she says, because the pet won't have a clue as to what's wrong. No matter how smart we think our pets are, they just don't think the same way we do.

University of Florida psychology professor Clive Wynne, who has studied how animals think, believes dogs so desperately want to be a member of the pack they will do anything to stay with their owner, even if mistreated. Thus they are very good at reading human cues, even about how we are feeling on any particular day, and that, in turn, can affect their behavior.

Cats, on the other hand, love their independence and are less likely to realize you've had a lousy day.

Incidentally, Campbell believes pets tend to respond more to rewards than to discipline, just like kids, but some kinds of discipline seem to work better than others. A harsh word might get the job done. But if that doesn't work, the next time the pooch steps out of line, act like a pack leader.

After all, dogs have been conditioned for thousands of years to be pack animals, and if you're the only other animal in the house, you're the pack leader.

"If you grab a dog by its muzzle and hold its mouth closed, that is pretty effective in telling it to stop whatever it is doing," Campbell says. I tried that on my border collie and it worked quite well. But I don't think I would try it on a cat.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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