You’ve probably heard that to get good behaviour from your dog or puppy, you need to establish yourself as the leader. That doesn’t mean being forceful and stern, says veterinarian Susan Simmons. “That’s being a tyrant. Good leadership is like being a good parent. You should be fair, consistent, meeting needs and providing safety. That gives you the foundation to teach self-control, manners and deference,” she explains.

She’ll be sharing ways to improve the behaviour of dogs and cats at the May 28 Come, Sit, Learn event at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC). Simmons is an OVC graduate who works at the Heartland Pet Hospital in Mississauga, Ont.  Her talk, “It’s Not the Impossible Dream: The Well-Behaved Pet,” will focus on understanding the body language and needs of our companion animals, and how to make the relationship more positive.

She’s one of three speakers presenting in the morning and will be followed in the afternoon by well-known veterinarian Marty Becker, who appears regularly on Good Morning America and The Dr. Oz Show, as well as a series of shorter sessions.

Simmons says that animal behaviour has always been her passion. “I think that by helping people understand their animals, so that the animals thrive and are well-behaved, the animal-human bond is strengthened and people are more committed to providing good care.”

“Come, Sit, Learn” could almost have been the title of Simmons’ presentation. For owners wanting to establish the leadership role with their animals, she recommends starting by teaching the dog or cat to sit. Yes, she teaches cats to sit, too. “And you need to teach them to sit in a variety of situations, because they don’t generalize well,” she says.

Then use that sit to establish yourself as the person in charge of all the resources. The dog wants his breakfast? Have him sit before you put his bowl on the floor. Your dog is bringing you a ball to play with? Have him sit and wait a short time before you get up and toss the ball to him. “Having the dog sit is like asking him to say ‘please,’” explains Simmons.

At the same time, she adds, you need to be sure you are meeting the dog’s needs. If your dog, for example, frequently asks you to come and play and is getting more and more demanding about it, it may be that the dog isn’t getting enough exercise. The amount of play and activity a dog needs depends on the age and breeding of the animal, but it’s important to meet that need. “Just be sure you ignore him when he’s being demanding,” says Simmons. “Later, when you are ready, take him out and throw the ball for him.”

If you give your dog treats when they beg for them, or jump up immediately to play with a dog when he drops the ball in your lap, Simmons says the dog’s respect for you is eroded, and he starts to expect to get what he wants, when he wants it. “The pulling on the leash, jumping up, barking and other problem behaviours are all part of that package,” she says. “You want your pet to look to you for guidance.”

This training doesn’t have to take a long time − just five minutes twice a day will help the dog learn better manners and greater respect.

An enriched environment is also important, especially for animals that are home alone all day. “Most housecats live in impoverished environments,” Simmons says. “Cats are carnivores; they’d normally spend most of their time hunting. Instead, they sleep a lot. I see a lot of older overweight cats as a result.” She suggests providing special “treat balls” for cats. These balls are filled with small treats; the treats fall out of the holes as the cat roles the ball around. (Similar treat balls are great for dogs, she adds.) Her own cats have access to an outdoor cat enclosure. Simmons does not recommend letting cats roam freely outdoors: “The life span is only three years on average because so many are hit by cars.”

Simmons also takes her cats for walks on a leash. Those walks − with a dog or a cat − can provide more enrichment, especially if you take the animal on different routes or to different destinations each time, and walk with other dogs and their owners.

Other topics to be presented on May 28 include: “Your Pet’s Health: What You Need to Know,” “Not Your Average Partner: When Your Best Friend Comes to Work with You” and Becker’s presentation on “Pets Make Us Feel Good…And Are Good For Us.” The cost for the day, including lunch, is $40. For more details and to register, go to