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Crazy Owners Make for Crazy Pets

Daniel Q. Estep, Ph.D. & Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, Animal Behavior Associates, Inc. 4994 S. Independence Way, Littleton, CO 80123

There seems to be a wide-spread belief that if a companion animal is behaving in a crazy manner, then it is because the owners are crazy and have made him that way. As you might expect this belief is mostly held by people that don't have problem animals. This belief is wrong on at least two counts. First, it is not appropriate to use words like crazy, psychotic or neurotic to describe the behavior of companion animals. "Crazy" does not have a scientific meaning and is not used in human psychology or medicine. The words psychotic and neurotic have very specific scientific meanings in human psychology, but aren't appropriate for describing problems in animals because they are defined in terms of human communication. There are some similarities between some human behavior problems and the problems we see in our pets, but we must be careful not to assume that the causes are the same. The second reason that this belief is wrong is that most behavior problems of companion animals are not caused by their owners. Most behavior problems that people complain about, such as dogs barking, cats not using the litterbox or even animals biting people, are normal behavior for the animal, but they occurs at times or in places that are not acceptable to people. These animals are not crazy, it's just that their normal animal behavior conflicts with our human needs. Admittedly, there are some behavior problems that animals show that are truly abnormal, but again we have little evidence that the owners have created the abnormal behavior. Most of the animals that we see in our behavior practice live in good homes with caring and loving owners. Most are obedience trained, get regular veterinary care and are well cared for. Despite this, the animals develop their behavior problems anyway. We don't know why some animals develop behavior problems and others don't. Genetic predispositions, early experiences or other factors all may play a role.

Sometimes owners may unknowingly create behavior problems out of ignorance. A puppy left in the house for eight to ten hours at a time will surely housesoil, and a long-term elimination problem may be created. Sometimes people unwittingly encourage behavior problems. Encouraging a dog to bark at or chase a delivery person ("Who is it Rover? Go get him!") can create or make worse a barking or an aggression problem. Owners that create or make worse behavior problems are the exception, not the rule.

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