5 Common Mistakes Pet Owners Make
Pet ownership doesn’t come with a manual and though most people seem to manage quite well without said manual, there are a few mistakes that many people make with their pets, despite their best intentions. Are you making any of these common mistakes?
#1 Assuming your pets understand everything you say
Animals are so good at reading body language and recognizing patterns that it can often times feel like they know exactly what we are saying to them.
When we talk, our bodies unconsciously follow are words and give our animals all the cues they need to know about what’s coming next. “Do you want a cookie” is simultaneously combined with movement towards the cabinet that holds the cookies. Even if we don’t actually step towards the cabinet, our bodies makes subtle shifts and our attention shifts to the cabinet - shifts that are very clear cues for our animals as to our intention, making us think the animal understood our words and responded to them, when in reality the animal was responding to our body language.
Sometimes, we give our animals commands when they were already about to perform the behavior we are commanding. This can make it seem like our pets understand our words and are obeying us, when in fact, it’s merely coincidence that they are doing exactly what we’re telling them to do. When we command them to repeat the behavior in a different set of circumstances when they weren’t about to perform the behavior, we end up confused as to why our animal is suddenly “defiant”. The problem is, the animal never understood us in the first place.
#2 Focusing on what you DON'T want your pets to do, instead of what you DO.
I have conversations like this all the time:
“I don’t want my animal to (insert undesirable behavior here).”
“Ok, so what do you want your animal to do?”
“Well, I don’t want him to…”
“Ok, so what should he be doing instead?”
“I just don’t want him to…”
It’s understandable that the person’s focus is on what they don’t want their pet to do. It’s likely that the behavior is destructive and/or frustrating for the owner. What’s important to remember though, is that animals perform behaviors to fulfill needs. If the behavior is punished and eliminated, there is a risk of damaging the relationship between the pet and pet owner, plus the animal still has the need.
The best way to successfully eliminate a problem behavior, without creating a bigger problem, is to teach your pets what you want them to do instead. For example, if your bird or ferret tries to escape from their cage every time you open the door, you might teach them to station on a perch/platform when you open the door, instead.
Instead of running out the door when it opens, Speedy, a Fennec Fox, is learning to run and sit on his stool instead.
#3 Expecting your pet to spend the entire day alone with nothing to do and not get in to trouble.
In a natural setting, animals keep busy foraging, hunting, playing, and grooming each other. When we put these animals in our homes, we often expect them to only be active for the short time between when we wake up and when we leave for work and then again between the time when we get home from work and when we go to bed.
This means that the animal is left alone, enclosed in a limited space with very little to do for the entire day and night, with only those few hours of activity when we are home and awake, and sometimes not even that.
Some animals manage this arrangement well but many animals, especially exotics, develop undesirable behaviors like excessive vocalizations or destructive activities and aggression, out of sheer boredom. Providing your pets with friends, more space, enrichment activities, more play time, and/or hiring someone to visit with them a few times a day can help to reduce boredom and some of the behaviors that go along with it.
#4 Only paying attention to your pets when they’re doing something you don’t want them to do.
After spending a long day alone with little to do and no company, it’s natural that our animals want our attention when we’re home. For us, after a long busy day at work, we just want to relax.
When our animals are quiet and not seeking our attention in any way, we tend to busy ourselves with our own activities and neglect to give them the attention they need. Our pets quickly learn that vocalizing, stealing objects they shouldn’t have, chewing on things they shouldn’t chew on and/or pestering their person, works very well to get the attention they need.
Every time we yell at, chase after, or push away our animals when they are trying to get our attention, we are giving them our attention and effectively reinforcing the attention seeking behavior.
What we should be doing instead is paying attention to our animals when they’re doing something we like. After all, behavior that is reinforced is repeated! So if you like that your pet is relaxing quietly nearby while you’re working on the computer, that might be a good time to take a little break and engage your pet in some playtime.
#5 Expecting your pets to never ever growl or bite, no matter what.
Not so long ago, children were taught to respect their animal’s space and not bother them while they were eating or sleeping. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way this changed and turned into a sort of free-for-all. People now expect their animals to accept being handled, however and whenever the person wants, with no protest.
If you go on Facebook, you’ll read over and over again on every animal group how animals should never ever bite people or even growl, hiss, or snap. This is a completely unfair and unrealistic expectation.
Being as animals have no verbal language, their only way of communicating discomfort is through body language and sounds such as growling or hissing. When this communication is unrecognized or ignored, which is so often the case, then the animal has no choice but to escalate to bite.
When you use punishment to take away early warning signs of discomfort, like growling, then you end up with a bit that happens “out of the blue”.
It’s much better to learn your pet’s language and respect their space, the same way you expect them to respect yours.