Animal behavior expert names faux “paws” in bringing home a new pet
by MARIKO LAMB | San Diego Pets
01:09 PM, Tuesday, January 01
Photo by Tamandra Michaels, Heart Dog Studios
Photo by Tamandra Michaels, Heart Dog Studios
Dr. Petra Mertens, now the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA’s director of animal behavior, never dreamed of having any other career.

S­he began studying veterinary medicine right out of high school in Germany, took her first mandatory animal behavior course at the University of Munich, and was hooked. She immediately switched from a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) to a dual DVM PhD program and never turned back.

Mertens unwaveringly pursued her passion in academic environments, serving as assistant professor and director of the behavior clinic at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, until she landed an important role at the San Diego Humane Society last fall coordinating and directing all programs related to animal behavior.

In addition to programs for animals in the Humane Society’s care, Mertens’ team offers dog training classes for the public. Classes focus on puppy socialization, intermediate Head Start classes and Canine Good Citizen programs, which allow participants to obtain a certification that is recognized by an increasing number of landlords and insurance providers.

Through her expertise in the field and years of work in academia focusing on clinical animal behavior, Mertens recognized a few faux pas that can be detrimental to the success of a pet-owner relationship, which are easily prevented for those who do their homework.

With her tips and tricks, any new pet can become a successful member of the family.

Get ready.

Mertens emphasized the importance of readying the entire family for the entrance of a new addition to their family, as it is a responsibility for many years to come.

“Before you make a dog or cat or any other animal your family member, think about what your needs are,” she said.

She urged family members to run through a checklist to determine what is in the family’s best interests. Questions such as what the family likes to do, how active the family members are, whether a cat or dog is best for that particular family, how large the animal can be, and whether or not the family wants a long or shorthaired animal are important basics to cover with the entire family.

“Really think about it systematically and then find out what you’re looking for. Go into it with a very clear idea of what you can do and what you cannot or do not want to do,” she said. “It would be bad if you really would like a very active dog and go running with it everyday and come home with a dog that just might not be an athlete or vice versa.”

Planning ahead and making conscious decisions with the entire family includes avoiding spontaneous decisions, such as gifting pets for the holidays or a birthday, she said.

“It’s a wonderful surprise, but it can be very problematic,” she said. “As a family, after the holidays are over – not with the drama of the holidays with visitors over – very calmly approach it, and look for the perfect pet that works for everybody.”

Get set.

Once the initial planning period is completed and the family has carefully selected the right pet for them, the orientation stage – including introductions to a variety of humans and other pets – becomes crucial.

“Sometimes people isolate young dogs initially when they come home for fear of infectious disease,” she said. “That’s a tragic mistake because the socialization period of a dog is very short – really only between three weeks of age and 16 weeks of age.”

Socialization should take place among a healthy population of dogs – those that are vaccinated and have healthy play habits – she said.

“Dogs really learn from each other,” she said. “A lot of dogs that are not socialized during that period of time will have issues later on when they encounter dogs, and it’s not efficient just to have them hang around one or two, but you really have to have that variety.”

New pets must also be introduced to all varietals of the human kind as well.

“Issues with children are amongst the number one reasons why dogs that are family dogs fail,” she said. “In an ideal world, they should encounter a few of each age group, not only one, because each kid looks different [and] behaves differently.”

Dogs with exposure to a variety of children are more likely to understand that when a child screams or falls on top of them, that it is not an attack.

“The most important thing is that they learn that that’s normal – that there is indeed a range of what humans look like,” she said. “They know then that this is not a danger. They will maybe avoid a little child, but they won’t react aggressively.”


Mertens suggests that new owners who are fully employed take some time off to ensure the animal’s proper adjustment to its new home and socialization through doggie playgroups or “Kitten Kindy” in cases where owners adopt a younger pet.

After settling in for a day or two, however, she iterated that it is important and safe to leave animals alone for a short period. Extend the ‘alone time’ slowly until the dog is comfortable while at work, although while away, it is best to leave them in an environment that is conducive to safe activity and appropriate play.

“What I do, for example, is I don’t feed my dog and cat out of a dish. They get all of their food out of a toy, so during the day when they are bored or a little hungry, they’ll toss around a ball or a couple toys that will vary all the time to keep them busy,” she said. “What would normally be vacuumed down in a few seconds lasts for an hour or so.”

She also offered a tip to keep dogs at bay while people entertain at their house.

“I’ll sometimes take a Kong toy and stuff it with some food with something yummy around it – maybe some peanut butter – and toss it in the freezer,” she said. “When people come over and I’m entertaining, and I don’t want the dog to jump up, I would have the dog lick on the toy to keep the dog entertained.”

For cats, contraptions as simple as a birdfeeder outside of a window for visual stimulation or as complex as an automatic laser toy that travels the room at regular increments are good options to keep them active and playful when owners are not around.

With tips and tricks from the best of the best, any new pet owner can establish trends that will set their new pet up for success.

For additional animal behavior information or to sign up for classes, visit or call (619) 299-7012 x2334.

­­­Old dogs can learn new tricks

Older dogs that have passed their “socialization prime” can adjust well to a new home too. Dogs of any age, type and training level can benefit from a refresher class at the San Diego Humane Society or individualized one-on-one training with one of the society’s certified pet dog trainers. Mertens’ team of highly skilled trainers work with all cats and dogs in their care and offer classes that are open for adopters as well as the general public.

“You would just be amazed with what the trainers do with the dogs that we have in our care here,” she said. “Dogs learn all the time. Sometimes it takes a little extra effort to ward against old habits, but they can absolutely be changed with patience and consistency and with professional help sometimes.”

A holiday tip

In lieu of gifting a pet, family members could begin the planning stage at that time, gifting a book on pet ownership or a stuffed animal instead.

“It’s a responsibility for many years to come, obtaining a new family member,” she said. “It’s a huge joy, but it’s also a decision that will affect the family for many years so it really requires planning to make sure that everybody is on board and ready to pitch in.”

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