14 Aug 2018

Dr Zazie Todd: Pet psychology

From Afternoons, 3:11 pm on 14 August 2018

We live with them 24/7 and yet most of the time we have absolutely no idea what our pets are thinking.

But Dr Zazie Todd does. She uses science to explain animal behavior and how pets think.

She says animal behavior will tell you what your pet is thinking almost every time if you just know what to look for.  Dr Todd shares her insights and research on a blog called Companion Animal Psychology.

Can dogs feel guilty?

Bored and stressed dogs can cause damage to property and themselves.

Bored and stressed dogs can cause damage to property and themselves. Photo: 123RF

"People tend to punish their dog thinking they know they’ve done something wrong but whatever happened while you were out, it was probably a long time ago. 

"That look that we associate with being guilty probably just means ‘maybe you’re going to tell me off now’ it’s doesn’t necessarily mean they know they’ve done something wrong. 

"Maybe it’s that we haven’t trained them in what they should do, or maybe we’ve left something out on the countertop that they could eat instead of  putting it away.

"Often the blame is really on us."

Is there such a thing as a bad breed?

Dogo Argentinos are classified as a menacing breed

Dogo Argentinos are classified as a menacing breed Photo: 123RF

There is no evidence that banning certain breeds makes a difference to the number dog bite incidents, she says.

"I’m from England which has had breed-specific legislation - for, I think it’s 27 years now - and there’s a big campaign from some of the animal welfare groups to actually get rid of it. 

"It hasn’t led to a reduction in dog bites and it means dogs get penalised for what they look like rather than their behaviour. 

"It tends to lead people to think that dogs are safe and so they don’t necessarily take responsibility for how they’re acting with the dog. 

What does seem to work is the Calgary model, from Canada, which has laws based on responsible pet ownership. 

'They have rules about how people should look after their dogs … educate people on what being a responsible pet owner means, and then they have the bylaws to back it up so they actually enforce those rules. 

"That seems to have made a huge difference with dog bites there." 

How do you stop a dog barking at home alone?

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Photo: Flickr

It depends on why the dog is barking, she says.

"Sometimes the dog is not liking being left home alone. 

"Sometimes the dog is just bored in which case lots of enrichment activities might actually help.

"Sometimes the dog is being a watchdog barker, which means they’re barking at people going by. You can either shut the curtains so that they can’t see who’s going by … or you can train them not to bark at them. 

"That’s where hiring a dog trainer would be helpful." 

Training tips: Positive reinforcement

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Photo: Pixabay

"The most common mistake probably is to rely on punishment too much when trying to train them, and I’m including cats in this as well. 

"A lot of people don’t realise that positive reinforcement is a very effective way of training animals. 

"It does require a change in thinking about - not what you don’t want your dog or cat to do, but - what you would like them to do instead. 

"The science shows that if we are using aversive methods unfortunately there are risks … feeling stressed  or anxious, or possibly even having an aggressive response. 

“You have a whole range of different types of food you can use - it shouldn’t be kibble, it should be something that the dog is going to find motivating."

Cat training

cat in hat

Photo: 123RF

You can also train cats, which surprises a lot of people, she says.

"Myself, I’ve trained my cats to - I call it ‘sit pretty’ - they sit there on their hind legs with their front paws up in exchange for a treat and it looks so cute. 

"For cats you can also use food and sometimes some of them will work quite hard to be rubbed or brushed on the side of the head as well. 

"It’s an enrichment activity for them, it gives them something to do, it’s something that they enjoy and it’s very like training a dog."

"The thing to remember with cats is that the treats have to be really small because the cats are quite small. 

"Cats have small tummies, they’re not going to get through lots and lots of treats … also lots of short training sessions not long ones. 

"A shelter is a very stressful place for a cat to be when it’s waiting to be rehomed with someone … it’s been shown that it helps them to have a regular training session."

Cats’ eating habits

60 percent of all cats in the USA are overweight, according to a recent study

60 percent of all cats in the USA are overweight, according to a recent study Photo: StaticFlickr

"Cats have to lose weight very, very slowly because otherwise they can become quite ill.

"One of the things it’s good to do with cats is to feed them multiple times a day, so don’t free feed them - ideally feed them about five small meals a day, several smaller meals. 

"If you feed them several times a day what seems to happen is that just before the meal times the cats seem to get more active. 

"Feed them with food toys, which some are like little balls with holes in a bits of kibble will fall out of the holes … it makes the cat work for the food. 

"But it’s something to do slowly, and keep an eye on and speak to your vet about because they may recommend special foods or something as well. 

"Of course, keep your cat active … they need their exercise too."

Indoor vs outdoor cats

A cat explores the snow in Fairlight, south of Kingston, in Otago.

A cat explores the snow in Fairlight, south of Kingston, in Otago. Photo: Supplied / Pete Van Berkel

"I grew up in England and … we don’t really worry about it too much. 

"You have to make sure they have an interesting environment so they have places to hide, that they have good scratching posts so they don’t scratch your furniture. 

"That they have high places to go, because cats like to be high up and interesting things to do because otherwise they will get bored. 

"They can be happy but I think you do have to put the effort in to make sure that they have what they need and that they are happy indoors."