PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 July, 2003, 12:00am

It has long been recognised that keeping dogs as pets can be beneficial to our health and well-being. However, if you've been put off by stories of cooped-up canines destroying precious furnishings, take heart. There are ways to 'puppy-proof' your home so that you and your animal friends have a long and happy relationship.

A common problem, says Pauline Taylor, deputy executive director of the SPCA, arises when dogs chew wooden furniture, rip upholstery and soil the floor while their owners are at work. Apart from being a sign of boredom, such destructive behaviour could also mean your pooch is suffering from separation anxiety, she says. This is a common problem, indicated if your dog tends to follow you from room to room, shower you with almost frantic greetings, or react when you are getting ready to leave the house. It can be resolved using 'counter- conditioning' and de-sensitisation techniques under the direction of an animal behaviourist.

Rose Tang, head of behaviour and training at the SPCA, explains that de-sensitisation means getting the dog used to situations (such as thunderstorms), while counter-conditioning asks them to modify their behaviour. 'For example,' Tang says, 'if they like chewing a shoe, we ask them to chew a 'legal' toy instead.' SPCA training methods are based on 'positive reinforcement', the premise being that reward-based training can achieve more effective results than punishment. It conducts weekend and evening classes in puppy socialisation and dog-obedience training and will provide private consultations with your dog for $400 an hour. It also runs puppy-parenting seminars ($150 for members, $200 non-members, tel: 2232 5567; www.spca.org.hk).

Although chewing furniture is an annoyance, it is important that dogs exercise their jaws, especially when a puppy is teething. Confine it to a puppy-proof area of your home whenever you are not there and leave it a good supply of chew toys and bones. Be prepared also to take your dog out for exercise at least twice a day for 30 minutes at a time. 'Ninety per cent of our calls regarding dog behavioural cases are from owners who hardly ever take their dogs out,' Tang says.

Vet and animal behaviourist Robert J. Holmes, who runs private clinics in Hong Kong and Australia and is available for telephone consultation (tel: 2575 2389; www.animalbehaviour.com), says separation anxiety, rather than boredom, is the most common reason for destructive behaviour in dogs, and some breeds are more susceptible than others. Independence training can help in this situation, as can medication - though it must be discussed with a vet first, Holmes says. Prevention is better than cure, and the easiest way is to get your dog a canine companion. Holmes recommends that, when possible, people should have two dogs since dogs do not naturally live alone (sibling pups from the same litter are ideal). That way, they always have each other, solving both dogs' body-contact needs.

The best advice, says Holmes, is to start as you mean to continue. Have clearly defined areas for resting, eating and toilet needs and make sure you enforce these boundaries. He also recommends a slow-release diet, so the dog is eating its food allocation throughout the day, rather than gulping it in one go. The chemical serotonin, naturally produced in the brain while chewing, helps control behaviour (Prozac produces a similar effect in humans, Holmes says).

Finally, realise that the biggest need in any dog's life is interaction - a dog will require your love and attention, and give you the same in return.