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Make Your Animal Smarter!

As published in Canadian Dogs Annual
Make Your Animal Smarter!

Adopting a puppy or kitten guarantees lots of love and laughter. It also guarantees some added responsibilities. New animal parents may not experience the same intensity of care-taking duties as new human parents, but what you do for your young companion’s development during the next few months will have a huge impact on whether or not she reaches her full potential both physically and behaviorally. What you may not know is that this includes mental stimulation as well as physical activity.

By six weeks of age, the nervous sensory and motor capabilities of puppies and kittens, while not fully mature, are sufficiently developed to allow them to explore their world and emit a variety of behavior patterns. At this stage, your young animal is willing to try almost anything, as few behaviors have yet been rewarded or punished. These youngsters are learning which behaviors “work” for them and which do not. They are forming behavioral “habits”, or their characteristic ways of coping with the world.

You want your puppy or kitten to develop a variety of behaviorally healthy coping patterns that serve both her and your family well. A young animal who is left to her own devices most of the time and receives little feedback about her behavior has few experiences that challenge her mentally or physically if she lives in a world that’s restricted to just a few settings (your house and yard), she will find learning new things difficult and be ill prepared to handle change and complexity.

Because your puppy or kitten is a unique individual, there is no “one size its all” answer to which experiences, interactions, toys, etc. will best develop her mental capacities. There are, however, six guiding principles you should consider when providing the best mental stimulation for your youngster.

1. Fear and anxiety interfere with optional mental development.
Learning about the world should be fun, not frightening. Manage your youngster’s new experiences so she happily engages in them rather than cowering or hiding in fear. You must walk the line between overwhelming her and being overly restrictive so that she can’t learn about her world. Appropriate socialization experiences are what prevent fear of the unfamiliar. You want your companion to grow up expecting new experiences to be enjoyable adventures rather than things to be feared and dreaded.

2. Play facilitates learning.
Behavior scientists have long maintained that play is necessary for normal development. Interactive play with your puppy or kitten increases the strength of your social bond. Poorly socialized dogs often don’t know how to play with either toys or people. Through social play, you can teach your young companion to control how hard she uses his mouth, to respect your personal space, and to calm down when she becomes overly excited.

For object play, provide toys that encourage a variety of species typical play patterns – chasing, pouncing, stalking, fetching and carrying. Playing with toys allows you to teach your puppy or kitten to release whatever she has in her mouth rather than having to pry her mouth open. Frequently and forcibly removing what your puppy has in her mouth is thought to be a contributing factor to resource guarding and is something to avoid (except in an emergency).

Cats love to hide and then pounce at moving objects. Paper bags and boxes, a puppy agility tunnel, or even a large planter with artificial plants make great hiding spots for kitties.

3. Take into account breed and species differences.
If you are a dog behavior aficionado then you are familiar with the pioneering research conducted by behavior scientists John Paul Scott and John Fuller in the 1950s and 1960s. Scott and Fuller found significant differences in learning abilities among breeds depending on the task to be performed. Basenjis, for example, excelled at a task requiring manipulation of a dowel and string attached to a food dish. Beagles did better at maze learning, and cocker spaniels did best on specific memory tasks.

Cats excel at learning different tasks than dogs. They perform better on a dowel and string-type task than do canines. What cats and dogs find rewarding also differs.

Cats are less likely to respond to social rewards and sometimes even food than are dogs. However, opportunities to play and explore can motivate cats.

What this means when providing a mentally stimulating environment for your puppy or kitten is that you should build on her strengths and natural abilities, and not have unrealistic expectations about performance and learning.

4. Set your puppy or kitten up for success.
Scott and Fuller found that when puppies failed repeatedly to complete learning tasks in the early stages of training, they either stopped trying or showed signs of distress such as yelping or engaging in abnormal behaviors.

Your puppy or kitten begins life inherently wanting and needing to learn. Living creatures must learn in order to survive. Rather than believing you must suppress the behaviors you don’t like, re-program yourself to concentrate on reinforcing and encouraging the ones you do. Dogs and cats that hear “no” much more than they hear “yes” become afraid to try new behaviors. So if your dog someday refuses to climb stairs he’s never seen before, or your cat avoids her expensive new climbing condo, it might be because her willingness to try was suppressed when she was young.

5. Social learning is important.
How easy it becomes for your puppy or kitten to engage with her world and experiment with new behaviors depends in part on her social environment. Sometimes, your youngster may find it easier to try new things by following other adult animals in your family. For example, house-training, finding the litter box, and coming when called are generally easier for a youngster who has an adult to follow.

In other cases, the opposite may be true. An adult dog or cat who is uncomfortable with a youngster often tries to suppress her behavior with social intimidation – by growling, hissing, pinning, stalking, chasing, snapping and even biting the little one.

6. Develop problem solving abilities through creative games and training.

This is where the real fun begins. Use what you’ve learned from the previous five points to create problem solving games that meet the individual needs of your four-legged kiddo. Try hiding a treat under one of three plastic cups and encourage your puppy or kitten to “find it”. Cats have good color vision so try teaching your kitten to always choose a cup of a particular color.

Clicker training is really a problem solving game – your young animal must figure out what she must do to get you to click and treat. Go to ClickerTraining.com for great suggestions on how to get started.

When young animals have been well socialized and encouraged to experiment with new behaviors and explore the world around them, they may find it easy to create their own games. You can find a great example of this at youtube.com/watch?v=JfGOlEizUUs. If you don’t laugh at this video, you need to check your pulse! It’s unlikely the cat in this clip has been excessively reprimanded for exploring items that could be off limits. Otherwise, he would not have had the confidence to turn a box into a kitty slide.

Sharing life with a companion animal who’s happy, well adjusted, and able to create her own fun from simple daily events and objects will increase your own joy in living. It’s up to you to start the process the day your puppy or kitten comes home!

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