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Working from home with your pet - how to nip attention getting behavior

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Cats and dogs often act out with bad behavior, especially when there is a change in routine such as a parent suddenly being home more often. In a nut shell, working from home with pets can be challenging.

Consider this: Paul Alfieri once set up a Webcam to see what his cat Shatner did during the day. No surprise: the four-year-old medium-hair black and white feline slept most of the day.

But now that Alfieri, a corporate communications professional who lives in the New York area but telecommutes with a West Coast company, works at home, he has seen a different side of Shatner.

“He actually wakes up from his nap to participate on conference calls. He hears the speaker phone, comes into my office, jumps up on the desk and meows into the phone,” Alfieri said.

His other cat, Snuggles, ignores Alfieri and goes about her daily routine. But not Shatner, who beams himself into the job mix.

“It's sort of a running joke now that we have to get execu-cat approval. I usually have to mute the line to put him back down on the floor. This is usually followed by him jumping on my lap and purring/rubbing his face against mine.”

With more and more people working at home and invading their pets’ roosts, battlegrounds can emerge, especially over the telephone and the computer.

Attention-getting behavior

Sophia Yin, DVM, who devotes her practice in Davis, Calif., to animal behavior issues, says the dog that barks excessively while the home worker is on the phone or the cat that pounces on a computer keyboard while the home worker is trying to write a report have something in common: attention-getting behavior.

“This is one of the most common problems people have with their pets,” said Yin, author of "How To Behave So Your Dog Behaves.”

She says dogs and cats quickly learn that when the person is busy with a phone call or focusing on the computer, that it is the easiest time to get a reaction by barking at or climbing on the person.

Frustrated people react in a variety of ways to disruptive pet behavior: yelling, cajoling, petting, yanking a dog’s choke chain, squirting a cat. Yin says none of that works because it simply rewards bad behavior. 

“The dogs bark and you finally tell them to shut up. That means they got your attention, or they bark and you go to pet them or talk to them because you’re trying to get them to be quiet. And that’s rewarded them. It’s the same with the cat that jumps up while you’re working because you’ll eventually touch them and put them back on the floor. They come and bother you the most when you’re the busiest.”

Changing the rewards

Yin says these behaviors can be changed in a matter of days by altering the rewards. She says people have to stop reacting to bad behavior, such as yelling at a barking dog. Instead, reward good behavior in your pet while you're working from home.

“When animals want your attention, the best thing to do is to make it clear that they’re not going to get your attention for that bad behavior. Ideally, if your dog barks at you and is standing right in front of you, you would turn your head, wait until the dog is quiet for maybe five seconds and then reward the dog for quiet behavior with treats or petting. You need to reward it shortly thereafter for continuing to be quiet.”

She says the dog would get a treat for sitting quietly for five seconds and then another 10 seconds later and then another 10 seconds later. “They get attention for being quiet, sitting politely. You do not want to wait to give them a treat when they bark again because then they could learn to bark. You want to wait until they are quiet and then reward them enough so that they remain quiet.”

Yin says the same approach is taken with cats by petting them and giving them treats only when they are sitting politely.

At AskDrYin.com, she has a free video, “Stella Learns to Earn,” demonstrating a dog being rewarded by giving her attention only when she sits.

Safe places

Susan Krebsbach, DVM, of Creature Counseling in Oregon, Wis., offered some additional tips for getting your pet to behave in your home office:

  • If you know when important phone calls will occur, put the pet in a “safe place” such as a bed or a kennel. She says a cat bed on a desk can keep the cat out of the way.
  • Schedule dog walks. Krebsbach, who specializes in animal behavior, says a dog that barks while you’re on the phone may actually need to go out, so it may help to put the dog on a regular walking schedule.

Yin says there can be peace in the workplace if the person is patient and rewards the pet for appropriate behavior.

“You can either fix it in two days or you can put up with it,” she said. “It’s all about rewarding the good behavior.”

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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