Animal Behavior: Misunderstandings between Pets and Pet Owners

By Beaver, Bonnie V. | Newsweek, May 4, 1998 | Go to article overview

Animal Behavior: Misunderstandings between Pets and Pet Owners


Beaver, Bonnie V., Newsweek


Pets can feel like part of the family, but like any family member they can sometimes drive us crazy. Teaching even the most adorable puppy or kitten to obey your commands can be frustrating. Unfortunately, problem behavior can drive some pet owners to give up their animals.

Euthanasia is the number-one killer of dogs and cats in the U.S.--responsible for more deaths than all infectious diseases combined. And behavior problems are the number-one reason that animals are turned in to animal shelters. When pets become destructive, aggressive or cause major inconveniences, some owners feel that parting with the animal is the only solution. The good news is that help is available. To keep you from reaching the end of your rope, here are a few things you should know about your animal's behavior.

Behavior Problems

When a dog or cat does something upsetting to an owner, very often the even was just the animal's normal behavior. But the owner may misread the situation, react inappropriately and worsen the problem.

Consider the following example. Dogs don't like to go out in heavy rain or snow any more than we do. One morning, an owner gets up and lets his dog outside to urinate. Since his dog does not really want to get wet, he sits by the door waiting to get back inside. He did not eliminate while outside, but his owner does not know this. Later in the morning, when his urge to eliminate is overwhelming, the dog urinates on the kitchen floor.

The owner comes home and assumes the dog eliminated in the house to "get even with" him for not petting him enough or for some other action. The owner then punishes the dog.

Now, after several consecutive days of bad weather, the dog quickly learns to associate the combined presence of the owner and the smell of urine with punishment. The dog's resulting hesitant behavior around his owner is interpreted as a "guilty" expression instead of a submissive one. This misunderstanding can lead to less interaction between owner and dog and to more negative feelings toward the animal.

In another example, a cat may sharpen his claws on his owner's new sofa because its testure is highly desirable. Because the old sofa was the cat's favorite daytime napping spot, the owner may assume that the cat is "getting even" with him for replacing the sofa. This inaccurate assumption can lead to the cat being punished for merely looking at the new sofa.

Behavior Misunderstandings

In both these situations, there are two major misunderstandings. The first is that an animal would exhibit a particular behavior as revenge for something his owner did. In the dog's case, he was merely expressing normal behavior in response to a particular environmental situation--bad weather. Normally the dog knows that the preferred location for elimination is outdoors. But when it was raining hard he hurried back inside. Naturally, when his need to go became overwhelming, he soiled in the house. Hardly an act of revenge! And the cat's slaw sharpening was completely normal cat behavior that may even have been tolerated on the old sofa. Why then should the cat differentiate the old sofa from the new one, or why should the cat know that the highly attractive fabric on the new sofa is to be left alone?

The second misunderstanding in these cases is that many per owners do not understand that punishment for animals is only associated with the event of the moment. Delayed interactions or ones that are really not connected to the problem are not effective. They only serve to vent the owner's frustration and are not really punishment in the classic sense.

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