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Behavior Needs

Pet owners know that sometimes their dogs’ or cats’ behavior can be a little confusing or frustrating! Sometimes these behavior problems become such an issue that pet owners consider rehoming or surrendering a pet. With the right information, pet owners can often work with their pets to solve these problems and create happiness in the household.

Check out these resources to learn more about why pets do what they do, how to prevent behavior problems and how to use training as a form of communication.


It is said that “a tired pet is a happy pet!” Dogs and cats receive many benefits from exercise – just like people do. Physical activity helps their bones, muscles, heart, digestive system and behavior. It also helps them to stay at a healthy weight, which prevents diabetes, breathing issues, and joint problems. As an added bonus – when you exercise with your pet, you will be healthier, too.

Dogs and cats need exercise to help keep them happy, reduce their stress, and help them live longer and healthier lives. Just like exercise is good for humans, it’s good for our pets, too. The right amount of physical energy being released from your pet will prevent them from using that energy to do things that they shouldn’t be – like digging up your yard or chewing your phone charger.

The breed of dog, how old they are, and their physical capabilities all come into play when deciding how much exercise your dog needs. Younger animals need more exercise than older animals, but even seniors will benefit from the feel-good brain chemicals a quick walk around the block can bring.

Yes! It is a common misconception that cats do not need exercise. In their natural habitat, they would hunt several times a day, and only be successful in capturing prey a few times! They are always moving around. The amount of exercise your cat needs depends on their age and personality. Try different amounts and see what works best for your cat.

You can take your dog on a run or walk around the block, take your dog to the dog park to run around with other dogs, play a game of fetch or use a flirt pole (a dog-sized cat wand toy that provides an easy way for your dog to burn off some energy while you stand still).

You can exercise your cat several ways. One is by using a cat wand toy and letting them chase it around the room. When playing, mix up the movements – slow and quick, jerky movements, and keeping the wand mostly on the ground. Have the toy near your cat, but not right in their face – most cats don’t enjoy being hit in the face with the toy! You can also get cat toys like jingle balls or catnip filled toys and toss them around for your cat to chase. Even using a balled up paper bag with catnip sprinkled in the middle can be a very fun physical enrichment toy!

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Although playtime is closely related to exercise, it is being separated here to more easily introduce the concept of “enrichment.” This is not only about exercising your pet’s body, but engaging their minds and senses. By providing enrichment activities for your pet, you help them to be healthier, happier and better behaved.

You may have heard of the term “enrichment” mentioned, but what does it mean in relation to pets? It literally means improving the quality of life for your animals.

The way that humans live, is not aligned to natural cat or dog behavior. Most animals wait at home with little to occupy their time. Their biggest event of the day is when their humans come home. Even then, most people are tired from their demanding work days and typically do not interact with pets enough to meet their pet’s enrichment needs. Each animal has a different level of need for enrichment – for example, younger animals typically require more enrichment than older animals.

In their natural environment, animals have unlimited environmental stimulation such as different smells/sights/touch experiences, encounters with other animals, looking for food, avoiding predators, and social interactions with their family groups, just to name a few.

As a responsible pet owner, you can enrich your pets’ lives in a way that will help reduce boredom, release stored up energy, and avoid behavioral problems. There are simple things that you can add to your pet’s daily schedule to help them have a more enriched and happier life.

Not only will increasing enrichment activities make your animals happier, but it is the first step in addressing unwanted behavior problems. Most behavioral issues stem from the animal having a lack of direction regarding their energy/anxieties. They then choose outlets that humans would rather they didn’t. For example, a puppy chewing up your favorite pair of heels or TV remote or a cat scratching at furniture because they didn’t have anything better to do! By channeling that energy, you can reduce anxiety, create routine, and allow your pet to release that energy positively. If you do not direct that outlet, the animal may choose one that is less than ideal.

It is important to know that enrichment is a part of DAILY life. Activities should not be the same all the time – variety is the spice of life. Have a few enrichment activities that you mix up during the week. The goal is to focus on using different activities to hit the three different aspects of enrichment: physical, mental and social.

Don’t forget the cats. Cats are frequently left out of the behavior conversation because people assume that they have fewer behavioral needs. This simply is not true! Cats are very active in their natural environment and in homes can get bored and experience depression. This is where the “fat lazy cat” stereotype came from. Research shows that enrichment has many health benefits, including lowering stress and preventing urinary problems. Most dog enrichment ideas can be adapted for cats. So don’t be afraid to do some tweaks to help the enrichment ideas better fit your feline.

YES!  Your pet has physical, mental and social needs that need to be met daily. When you are going through the enrichment routine, make sure you are focusing on all three instead of just one.

  • Physical enrichment relates to exercising your animals. This can be going for walks with your dog, chasing after toys, playing tug games with rope toys, playing with cat wand toys or jingle balls, etc. Both Dogs and cats should have access to exercise for at least 30-60 minutes per day.
  • Mental enrichment focuses on stimulating all your pets’ senses. This can be using foraging/searching toys for meals instead of feeding from a bowl, working on training cues and learning new tricks, using chews for touch enrichment, spraying a lavender and water solution for scent enrichment or playing audio books for hearing enrichment. Animals should have a minimum of one chew a day, and one new enrichment item or activity per day. 
  • Social enrichment can be snuggling with you on the couch or playing with other animals. It is recommended that a pet has at least 15 minutes a day of social interaction with their humans. Younger animals (puppies and kittens) should have a minimum of 30 minutes.

Enrichment can be very low cost! Do your research and have fun getting creative. Check out different resources and ideas for enrichment activities to do with your pets. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on enrichment items either. Kongs are amazing tools, but a recycled paper towel roll filled with pieces of dry food can be just as fun. Head over to your local dollar store and see how many different types of foraging (food searching) toys you can make for your pet with items that are there. NOTE: Be sure to monitor your pet when playing with toys to prevent choking or swallowing non-food items that could create blockages.

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We teach our pets what behaviors we do and don’t want through training. Our pets may not speak our language, but we communicate with our actions. It’s important that we are consistent and deliberate when teaching our pets how to behave. In this section, we explore the principles of training, which you can apply to many different situations with your pets.

We also offer several videos to discuss training tips for some common behavior challenges for cats and dogs.

Living with pets is actually a pretty amazing concept if you think about it! They are a completely different species, have different needs and even have their own language, yet we live with them as a part of our family. When we are trying to communicate to them, we need to make sure that we are doing it in a way that they understand – using their own language, not ours.

First off, use fewer WORDS. People communicate mostly using verbal language. Animals communicate using actions and body language. The way we can send the clearest messages to our animals is how we react to situations. For example, we can give the animal something they want (like praise or a delicious treat) when they are offering behavior we want (such as sitting or going to the bathroom outside or in their litter box). We can also take something away (such our attention) if they are offering unwanted behavior (like jumping on us or pawing at us)

The key to telling animals what behaviors we do or don’t want, is knowing what motivates them.

Using treats is one motivator that works with most animals because the need to seek out food is programmed into them, just like us! But there are SO MANY other motivators that we can use to help communicate our message to them, such as giving our attention, providing opportunities to do things they like such as going in the yard or out for walks, mealtimes, petting/scratching their favorite spots, spending time training with you, etc.

Make a list of all the things your pet likes to do. Then sit and think about how you can help them understand that they need to offer you some type of calm behavior (like a sit) before they can get this motivator.

This is an example of how you would take away something that your pet wants as a way to communicate what behavior you do want.

Get the leash out to go for a walk. Many pets will get excited and jump all over you. Getting excited is not bad, but jumping on you is an unwanted behavior and we want to teach them to do something else in order to get the walk.

As soon as your pet’s paws touch you, put the leash down and turn away. This may confuse them at first and they may jump more to get your attention, but continue to ignore them. As soon as they settle, pick up the leash again. If they remain calm (this may take several repetitions at first!), then you can put the leash on and go for a walk.

If you are patient, consistent, and have a clear definition in your head for what is and is not appropriate behavior, the message will come through to your pet loud and clear. “If you jump on me, we do not walk BUT if you have all four paws on the ground, we will go for a walk.” You can even take this communication to the next level by asking your pet to always sit before leashing up.

Remember that no matter how smart your pets are, they do not speak human language! So, if your pets are doing something you do not want, consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is this unwanted behavior preventable?
  • How can I prevent my pet from doing it?
  • Have I taken the time to train my pet to do something else instead?
  • Am I assuming my pet knows this is not what I want?
  • Have I taken the time to communicate to my pet that this is not what I want?
  • Have I taught my pet what I do want?

After asking these questions, make sure your communication is CLEAR. If you live in a household with several people, this can be difficult. For example, if Mom does not want the dog on the couch, but Dad is letting the dog get up for snuggles, the message is muddy. Make sure that all the humans in the house are enforcing the rules the same way. When your pet does something you do not want, let them know with a calm but strong tone and physically prevent them from doing the behavior. Think back to how you can do training or management to prevent your pet from making the mistake again.

Although there are different styles of training, many behavior specialists believe that training based on rewards, such as praise, play, toys or food, is more effective. Research shows that this positive approach builds trust between you and your pet and allows them to feel safe so they can focus on learning the lessons. Scolding a pet may tell them what you don’t want, but that does not help them learn the new behavior. Physical punishment, such as hitting an animal with your hand or a newspaper, has proven to lower their quality of life, create more stress, cause fear, and may even make them more aggressive. This should be avoided.

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