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How to Stop Your Pet's Bad Habits

07/16/2015 11:57am ET | Updated July 16, 2016
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If you feel you've tried everything, but Fido or Fluffy's bad habits have become the norm, you may be giving the wrong signals and actually encouraging the very behavior you're trying to deter.

Putting your finger on triggers that set off your pet's undesirable behaviors, and positively reinforcing new behaviors with constructive guidance, is a very effective way to train pets to live in family harmony -- and avoid annoying neighbors and guests.

Jumping At Every Chance

Scenario: It's a foregone conclusion that when you walk in the door, your beloved pup is so overjoyed to see you that she jumps all over you, licking your face to show how much she missed you. When you gently push her away, scratching her ears in the process, you're reinforcing her behavior. She wants interaction and you're giving it to her.

While you think you're saying no, from your dog's perspective, all your signals are saying you approve. Reacting by not reacting -- turning your back, standing straight and ignoring her -- indicates you don't welcome her exuberant jumping routine.

Your Dog Is a Woofer When a Whisper Would Do

Scenario: Your routine is to release your dog into your fenced backyard every morning to do his business. But you can count on him barking loudly every time your neighbor leaves for work. If you call him in and feed him or pet him to distract him from barking, he thinks you're pleased with his behavior. A better idea would be to let him out half an hour earlier and bring him back in before the barking starts.

Another example might be when your mail carrier heads up the sidewalk to drop mail in the box, which invariably sets off boisterous "woofing" from your self-appointed guard dog. What to do? Try taking Fido to a back bedroom around the time of day you expect a mail drop-off. Turning on a fan or white noise machine can drown out the sounds your dog is listening for outside.

Discourage Your Cat from Scratching the Wrong Surfaces

Scenario: Your kitten is shredding your bedroom drapes. Obviously, speaking sternly and taking away her catnip won't take care of the problem.

A better way to deal with it is twofold: Not only should you take her out of your bedroom and shut the door, you should also provide her with something to scratch, since this is a completely natural and necessary feline behavior.

If kitty shows a preference for scratching carpeting, give her a horizontal scratch surface with a similarly nubby texture. If you catch her attacking the legs of your coffee table, get her a sturdy upright post so she can stand up and sharpen her claws to her heart's content.

Likewise, your kitty may have a penchant for chewing shoelaces and computer cables. This is another way your housecat demonstrates the natural proclivity of cats in the wild. Keep cords and shoelaces out of her reach, but also provide a few appropriate toys designed for felines.

Also, trimming your kitty's nails will reduce the damage she's able to inflict.

Whatever the scenario, the idea is to identify the triggers that set off the jumping, barking, scratching or other unacceptable behavior, and avoid them whenever possible. That is the key to positive reinforcement.

Additional Tips

• Remove your pet's temptation to search and destroy by removing access. If your dog likes sniffing out -- then tearing out -- the garbage all over the garage, place the container someplace where he can't get to it.

• Handling your pet's unwanted jumping, digging or barking with loud words or roughness may not only reinforce the bad behavior, but put you in a bad light for future correction. Be calm and speak kindly. You want trust and respect to rule the day, not fear.

• Pets, like people, have certain windows of time when they're more receptive to directives. Rather than trying to teach your pup good behavior when he's stressed, hungry, tired out or in an unfamiliar environment, wait until he's calm to make a point.

• Small treats are a good idea whenever your pet responds well to new behavior training; give them occasionally when good behavior becomes the new normal.

• Treats are great, but affection and sweet talk are also essential to encourage desired behaviors in your best furry friend.

In Case It's Not a Habit, But Something Else...

If your typically well-behaved pet suddenly starts doing his business in the dining room or stops eating, he may not be simply misbehaving. He may be suffering from a health problem, so you'll want to rule this out first with a visit to your veterinarian.

If you're at your wits end with your pet's behavior, consider hiring a professional. Find a positive trainer through a trusted referral, or a veterinary behaviorist ASAP.

Dr. Karen Becker is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. You can visit her site at: MercolaHealthyPets.com

Her goal is to help you create wellness in order to prevent illness in the lives of your pets. This proactive approach seeks to save you and your pet from unnecessary stress and suffering by identifying and removing health obstacles even before disease occurs. Unfortunately, most veterinarians in the United States are trained to be reactive. They wait for symptoms to occur, and often treat those symptoms without addressing the root cause.

By reading Dr. Becker's information, you'll learn how to make impactful, consistent lifestyle choices to improve your pet's quality of life.