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Tools to Help Train Dogs and Cats

By: Dr. Ilana Reisner

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So you want to train your dog and it's just not happening. You say, "sit" and he just looks at you. You say, "stay" and he runs away. But you know there must be some way to train your pooch.

There is, and this is what you need to know: Training is most effective when dogs or cats are rewarded for the good - or desirable - things they do, and are ignored, corrected, or redirected when they don't do what you should.

Training Products

A variety of training and behavior modification devices is available through pet supply stores, catalogs, and online. When used as part of a broad plan, such products can be very useful for pet owners. But remember, they are only tools to help change your pet's behavior and will not train the dog themselves.

Products available include: training collars, bark deterrents, booby-trap devices, direct "punishers," and remote-control training devices. Because so much of training involves stopping unwanted behavior, many of these products are based on the punishment principle.

It's helpful, however, to keep in mind that behaviors can be interrupted and redirected by products that aren't particularly unpleasant - and are certainly not painful - for your dog or cat. Whatever method you use to train your dog or cat, it is important to reward your companion for doing things that you approve of - whether sitting, walking calmly on a leash, being quiet for a while, greeting you without jumping, or – especially for cats – staying off counters.

Collars and Harnesses

Conventional buckle collars are fine for dogs or puppies that don't pull while walking on lead. If your dog pulls, consider using a head collar (a.k.a. head halter). Several styles of head collar are available, each varying slightly in design.

An example is the Gentle Leader™, formerly called the Promise™ collar (Premier Pet Products, Richmond, Va., 800-933-5595). Specially designed harnesses, such as the No Pull Halter™ (Four Paws Products Ltd., Hauppauge, N.Y., 631-434-1100), are also effective in some dogs.

Any of these devices is more useful to the average dog owner - and less unpleasant for the average dog - than the often-misused choke or prong collars.

Bark Deterrents

Anxiety-based barking should first be addressed by treating the source - e.g. separation anxiety - of your dog's distress. When barking isn't a symptom of anxiety, an anti-bark collar may have the desired effect. Such collars work by sensing the bark and causing some unpleasant effect, such as an audible signal (clicking or buzzing) or electrical stimulation (shock). An effective alternative recently introduced into the pet market is a collar that briefly emits a spray of citronella oil, which surprises - but doesn't hurt - your dog. Citronella-emitting anti-bark collars are available from Animal Behavior Systems, Inc., Tampa, Fla. (800-627-9447).

Remote Training

When unwanted behavior occurs at a distance from the handler - an example might be fence running by a dog in a back yard - it's most effective to correct or interrupt the behavior at the moment it occurs. A remote-control interruption device can help achieve this aim. Such a device is typically applied to the dog's collar and is controlled by the handler, who's standing a distance away. The appliance works by emitting a stimulus that distracts or punishes the dog. One such remote control device triggers a burst of citronella spray to interrupt unwanted behaviors so that your dog will then respond to, for example, a "come" command. Such a device is the Master Plus™ (Animal Behavior Systems, Inc., Tampa, Fla., 800-627-9447).

Throw Chains

Small hand-held devices (made of chain links) that are thrown to land near and surprise your dog have a similar effect to remote training collars - but they are tricky to aim accurately.

Booby Traps and Environmental Devices

If your dog or cat misbehaves in specific locations in your absence – for example, climbing on the sofa or kitchen counters, or invading the garbage – it may be useful to set a "booby trap" to consistently remind your pet that these locations are off-limits.

There are many products that serve this purpose, including the Scat Mat™ (which delivers a minor static-like stimulus when stepped upon) and Snappy Trainer™ (a safe mousetrap-like device designed to surprise the dog or cat without causing pain). Indoor containment systems, such as the citronella-spraying Spray Barrier™ (Animal Behavior Systems, Inc., Tampa, FL, 800-627-9447) can effectively keep your dog or cat out of a specified area of your home.

Exercise and Food-Based Toys

To occupy the interests of a pet who might otherwise get into mischief with digging, scratching, barking or some other unwanted behavior, consider the use of a food-filled toy. Arrange for the food contained in them to be a challenge to extract - so that your pet is kept busy for hours trying to get the food out. Freezing goopy food (peanut butter or spay cheese) inside the food puzzle has this effect. Such products work best if they're kept out of sight until needed. Examples include: Kong™ toys (Kong Products, Lakewood, Colo., 303-233-9262); Nylabone™ toys (Nylabone Products, TFH Publications, Neptune, N.J., 908-988-8400); and Pavlov's Cat™ (Del-West Enterprises, San Diego, Calif., 619-689-9999).

It is important to keep an open mind when training your favorite four-legged companion. Modifying his behavior may be a challenge at first, but with a little patience, perseverance, and love, you can bet that the process will be successful in the end!

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