Stranger Than Fiction: Pet Training Requests

December 6, 2011 | By | Comments (1)

File this under the header “Strange but True.” I asked dog trainer and Animal Planet pet expert Andrea Arden about the most bizarre training requests that have crossed her desk.

5107695 Crowntail Betta Male

Crowntail Betta male. Photo courtesy of PetSmart, Inc.

Top of mind concerned a Betta fish. This is a fighting fish. A potential client wanted Andrea to train her fish — alone, in its fish bowl — because “she thought it was too aggressive.” At first, Arden thought it was a prank call, but then realized the woman was in earnest.

Next up was the man who called in to ask if his dog could be trained to sniff out bed bugs.* Arden’s short answer was, “No.” Her longer answer was, “The amount of time, effort, and money would be so exorbitant for your own personal means that it wouldn’t make sense to do this.”

And then there was the “cat thief.” A clearly embarrassed woman emailed Arden to explain that her cat was stealing her unmentionables (I’m referring to clothing). Since her cat, who happened to be a male, was also being aggressive with the woman’s boyfriend, she concluded that her cat had developed romantic feelings for her! Arden still chuckles over this one. “In fact, he was just a confident adult male cat who was a hoarder. This had more to do with ‘resource guarding’ than with anything else,” she says.

So what can we learn from all of this?

1) We need to be realistic about animal nature. Forcing a “fighting fish” to be less aggressive isn’t that far afield from asking a dog to stop wagging its tail or barking. (Excessive barking, on the other hand, could be up for discussion.)

2) We may think our pet is a genius, but it’s ill-advised to ask him or her to master a highly specific task for which there has been no prior training, especially if there’s limited time at hand.

3) We should do less anthropomorphizing of our pets. “We take very simple behaviors and turn them into fables. You really need to focus on what you see versus on what you think,” Arden says.

“I say as a joke that people think there is some hidden button that dog trainers press,” says Arden. “Animals are not computers. They are complicated living creatures with emotional histories. As long as it takes for them to develop a behavior, it will take at least a percentage of that time to alter that behavior.”

As an example, she cites the scenario of a dog jumping up on visitors. This is an apt example, because I’m sure I’m not alone in having tolerated if not downright encouraged this interaction. Suddenly, there’s a new neighbor on the scene, or a new baby, and “all of a sudden, ‘this has to stop,’ ” according to Arden. I can see how the new world order could be awfully confusing to a pet, given the prior conditioning.

How about you? Have you tried to train your pets yourself or sought professional help?

Check out Arden’s brand-new book, Barron’s Dog Training Bible, for more tips.

* Bed bugs have made quite a name for themselves in some urban locales, but so has their adversary, Roscoe the bed bug sniffing beagle, who alerts his trainer to their presence by sitting down and pointing with his nose to the problem spot. RealSimple etiquette expert Michelle Slatalla recently blogged about how to handle this pesky issue, from a modern manners standpoint, come holiday time.