Welcome back to Tips & Tales! In this month’s column I will address reader questions about canine aggression and ways to prevent cats from scratching furniture, which are common questions we get asked at the San Francisco SPCA’s Behavior Specialty Clinic.
Many behaviors we see in our companion animals are normal reactions to their environment, and simply understanding our pet better can effectively address the issue at hand. When behaviors go beyond the scope of normal expectations, however, seeking professional help can be essential to prevent the problem from escalating.
Question: Our dog is very gentle and loving with us, but when we walk him he barks and shows aggression toward some strangers. We can’t figure out which people will trigger him, but we would love for it to stop. Any recommendations? — Barry
Answer: Our Behavior Specialty Clinic has a lot of experience treating dogs who reactively bark at people when being walked. There can be different reasons for this behavior, and body language can provide clues. Some dogs become reactive when they want to greet a person but can’t because they are on a leash. These dogs often bark with soft eyes and a loose body. Other dogs want the opposite; they want the person to go away. These dogs may display distance increasing signals when barking, such as a hard stare and stiff body with a tucked or stiff tail. Some dogs might bark because they are unsure about the person. These dogs might exhibit whale eye, which is when the dog shows the whites of its eyes, or a paw lift, yawn or lip lick.
Regardless of why your dog reacts when seeing a person, try first to refocus his attention on you. If your dog shows aggression toward people, maintain the distance at which your dog does not react. At that distance, start creating a positive association with people and reward calm behavior. Offer a treat every time your dog sees a person, while he is calm, so your dog begins to associate seeing a person with redirecting his attention to you for a treat. Catch your dog’s attention as soon as he becomes aware of a person, before he reacts. Continue holding his attention until you have moved away or the person is out of sight. Most importantly, never punish your dog, as this may only increase fear, anxiety and aggression due to negative associations. If you need assistance, reach out to us at the SF SPCA.
Question: Despite regularly clipping my cat’s claws, her scratching continues to cause damage to my furniture. Do you have any advice? — Michelle
Answer: Scratching is a normal and necessary behavior for cats that has both functional and communication-related components. Scratching allows them to mark their territory, exercise and sharpen their claws. When a cat scratches, it leaves a physical mark and chemical message.
Of course, indoors there are places we don’t want cats to scratch. Keep in mind that punitive methods will at best temporarily interrupt the scratching and won’t work when you’re not home.
To prevent furniture scratching, provide plenty of places you do want your cat to scratch. Try a few different scratching posts to see if your cat prefers horizontal, vertical or angled posts, and what type of material they prefer. The post should be at least twice as long or tall as your cat, to give him or her plenty of room to stretch, and should be sturdy. Cats often choose furniture over a small cat scratcher because it’s sturdier. Cats often like to stretch and scratch when they wake up, so place a scratching post next to where they commonly sleep. Here are a few more tips:
• Use positive reinforcement to encourage scratching on surfaces that you designate by giving a treat or toy when your cat uses the scratching post
• Try a product called Feliscratch by Feliway®, which has shown to increase scratching in the desired areas and significantly decrease scratching in other areas
• Attach toys or catnip to the post
• Some people use cat claw caps, which can work but require frequent replacing
Providing your cat with plenty of enrichment — to keep her physically and mentally stimulated — can also decrease unwanted scratching. Cats naturally hunt for their food, so try putting your cat’s meal in food puzzles and hide them around the house. Recycled toilet paper tubes or tissue boxes work too. Also provide novel surfaces your cat can destroy, like a box of paper packing or shredded paper.
Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, CAWA, is senior vice president of rescue and welfare at the San Francisco SPCA. Want to learn more about training techniques? Check out sfspca.org/prong. Email behavior and medical questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.