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What every pet parent should be doing

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Dr Chantelle McGowan, BVSc MANZCVS (Behaviour)

Elite Fear Free Certified Coach



Veterinary Behaviourists around the world get asked “What can I do to make sure my pet is happy?” and they all agree on one thing: Calmness Reward Training. Read on to find out more…


Louis the black and white fluffy cat is posed on his back, belly exposed, scrunching into the corner of the couch
A calm & relaxed Louis



Positively reinforcing your pet when they behave in a calm, relaxed manner is probably one of the most helpful things you can learn as a pet owner.




Acknowledge the good


We’ve all been there.


We’re busy, in our own worlds, we know we haven’t yet walked the dog or played with the cat, but we just have to finish this one thing... Before you know it, CRASH!


The bin is tipped over and all you can see is their satisfied little butt investigating their handy work.

A worried black dog is looking up to the right corner of the screen

How we react to the incident will determine the behaviour that follows.


If it's yelling or berating our pet in this situation, this results in giving our fur friend negative attention - which they will take gladly as it achieves what they needed, your attention, even if it is not the best version of you.


A healthier alternative is to get ahead of their behaviour in the first place. Before they get into the bin, take 30 seconds to scatter or hide some treats/kibble and tell your pet how good they are for being patient, and you won’t be much longer. Then hold yourself accountable, and be present for them (phones down unless it’s to capture how adorable they are).


Educators know the power of positive feedback and the impact it has in reinforcing behaviour or learning outcomes. Think back to your own experience - that assignment returned with only negative comments, versus some constructive edits with positive comments in the margins. The outcome and how you felt were no doubt very different in each case.


When we curate our pets’ environment to set them up for success and encourage behaviours we want, like giving them an enrichment activity to keep them quietly busy, we focus on the positive and eliminate the negative.


Look for when your pet is displaying the behaviours you want, then give positive affirmations. It’s amazing how often this positive behaviour is repeated once you are looking for it.


How to give positive feedback to pets

- Use a soothing, quiet tone, (or for deaf/blind pets another cue you have worked on – tips and tricks can be found here, summary at the end) and whisper ‘good boy/girl/dog/cat/name/munchkin/whatever’ if you see them resting, laying quietly, especially in a floppy body position.

- While It’s helpful to use the same cue word for continuity, it’s the volume and tone we employ that is most important. Keep your voice low so you don’t startle them, avoid touching them or using treats that might bring their arousal levels up. This will ensure that our pet remains in their zen state.

- Words are powerful, and they will have a positive and affirmative action in our own outlook and demeanour. Seeing our positive but calm facial expressions/verbal tone/body language further reinforces to your pet that they’re doing the right thing.


A happy black and white Maltese X Shih Tzu puppy looks at the camera with her mouth open

When to give positive feedback to pets

Consistency is key. Pay attention to what your pet is doing right and call it out. Over time it will be a reflex action – that's a good thing!


Who can give positive feedback to pets

The more the merrier – you can never have too much of a good thing!

Educate your family on how to ‘speak’ to your pet. Identifying your pet’s relaxed body language is key, so make sure you have a discussion about waiting until they are relaxed and ‘floppy’, and then whisper the same cue.



 

Tips for positive feedback to pets that are deaf or deaf & blind


· The Auslan sign for ‘good’ is simply an emphasised “thumbs up” with one hand

· This signal can be moved closer to the pet’s face if they’re vision impaired

· This signal can be given with different body language e.g. hyped up vs calm & gentle

· To teach your deaf pet “Good Pet”, make sure you know what they love (treats, toys, games, patting, brushing, going to a specific location, it could be anything)

· Give the "Good Pet" signal and then immediately do one of these fun things

· Do this many times (about 20 times) until your pet starts to respond to the signal by looking at you intently waiting for that reward, and then end the mini-training session

A Latino male is holding his thumb up to the camera, the thumb centre focused and the rest of the shot out of focus

· Repeat these short training sessions (<5 mins) randomly over a few days. Always use rewards

· Once your pet ‘gets it’, start to generalise the cue. When your pet does something that you like, give the "Good Pet" signal and then follow it up with the reward

· Try to always use the signal followed by the reward as often as possible, because this means when we are trying to keep our pet calm with minimal stimulus, we can use the signal without following it up with a treat, because they’ve learned the signal means ‘good’



· For deaf & blind pets, you will need to use touch to convey your positive affirmation

· You probably know your pet’s favourite scritching and patting spots, - use them.

· As gently & lightly as possible, stroke their favourite calming spots on their body when they’re relaxed and calm

· Your touch will feel different to your pet if you are happy, or frustrated, or tired, or excited etc

· Talk to your deaf & blind pet and have positive body language so that all of your energy is in the moment, and all the sensory information they can absorb from you is positive

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