Our modern lifestyles aren’t just taking a toll on our emotional and psychological health, but they’re playing havoc with our dogs too. An increasing number of dogs are suffering from a range of behaviour problems (or perhaps an increasing number of dog parents are turning to professional help), including aggression, resource guarding, separation anxiety, excessive vocalisation and compulsive behaviours.
Many of these behaviours can be attributed to lifestyle, for example, pet parents spending most of the day at work, leaving dogs alone with nothing to do. Dogs are also expected to live in multi-pet households that may include 3 generations of people, cats and guinea pigs. They live in very close proximity to other dogs and are exposed to many of them in situations they can’t control (at dog parks, for instance), and many don’t have the social skills to cope.
Many problem behaviours are also preventable, provided dogs are properly socialised as puppies and their parents provide the right mental stimulation, meet their physical exercise needs and understand their dogs’ likes and dislikes.
On the other hand, some dogs are genetically predisposed to certain problems (like fear), and they have life experiences that allow those problems to come to the fore, leaving their human parents with no choice but to address the problems as best they can.
Note: If you think your dog has a behaviour problem, or any of your dog’s behaviours are a problem for you, contact a qualified animal behaviourist to help you deal with the situation. Don’t rely on anecdotal advice from well-meaning friends. While it’s a good idea to research problems on the net, remember that sources aren’t always credible and some contributors don’t keep up to date with scientific breakthroughs and modern behaviour treatment methods. Always choose behaviourists who use force-free, positive reinforcement methods and run a mile from anyone who talks about dominance and pack leadership.
In the USA, you can find behaviourists with ABS.
Internationally, you can find behaviourists with IAABC.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common behavioural problems that people report in their dogs. We’ll also discuss some tips on how to deal with problems if they are only mild. If you see signs of severe problems developing, however, you should contact a behaviourist.
One important point before we start: Most of the behaviour that people label ‘problems’ are actually normal for dogs, so it’s not always possible (or desirable) to eliminate them; but you can provide ‘legal’ outlets and take steps to manage the problems so they don’t become excessive.
Reactivity or aggression is perhaps the most worrying behaviour that dogs exhibit. Some breeds are genetically prone to aggression; dachshunds, for example, are the most aggressive dog breed, and some dogs develop aggressive behaviour patterns to cope with difficult situations. For example, some dogs are fearful or defensive when on lead and will bark and lunge and do anything possible to eat any dogs that come near. Take the lead off, however, and they are sweet as pie, bouncing around and playing with other off-lead dogs.
Some dogs may have no problem interacting and playing with canine friends, but as soon as a child or bearded man comes along they turn into rabid, snarling Cujos.
Reasons behind aggression are varied and complicated and it’s often very difficult to determine the rewarding factor that maintains the behaviour. That’s why it is very, very important to contact a qualified behaviourist to help you deal with any signs of aggression. Remember: The longer you wait to deal with aggression, the worse the problem will get and the longer it will take to modify the behaviour.
Genuine cases of separation anxiety can be heartbreaking and take a great deal of commitment from pet parents to deal with. However, sometimes boredom masquerades as separation anxiety. Pet parents come home to cushions that have exploded, counters that have been cleared, doors that have been chewed and laundry hampers that have been emptied, and assume that their poor dog missed them so much she couldn’t bear it.
In fact, sometimes their dog is just plain bored and looking for ways to have fun. This is one of the reasons why behaviourists need to actually witness behaviour before they can make a proper assessment. They need to see the dog’s emotional state while performing the behaviour.
A hidden camera can reveal a wealth of information. For example, a Labrador that empties the laundry hamper and runs around the house, tossing underwear in the air, could be having an absolute ball. In that case, the behaviour modification programme will consist largely of providing more brain stuff for her to do.
If, on the other hand, the video shows a weimaraner, pacing, panting, whining and chewing the door, chances are that it is separation anxiety and the behaviour modification programme will be vastly different.
Separation anxiety is more common in certain breeds than others (weimaraners, for instance) and in shelter dogs who bond very strongly with their rescuer. It is very important that you contact a professional animal behaviourist if you suspect that your dog has separation anxiety, so that you can change your dog’s emotional state, help her develop confidence and save yourself a packet in repairs.
The ASPCA has a comprehensive article on separation anxiety.
Guarding food, shelter and reproductive rights is essential for dogs’ survival; that is if dogs live in rural areas or are strays. So guarding is perfectly normal dog behaviour. But in our homes, where we provide plenty of good food, attention and comfy beds, guarding is not only not unnecessary but also undesirable, especially if you have a severe guarder who growls and snaps to protect what’s hers.
If guarding is mild (your dog runs away with her treasure to enjoy it in peace) or gives a warning growl when you or other dogs get too close while she’s chewing a biscuit or squeaking a ball, then management may suffice to deal with the problem. Use common sense, leave her in peace when she’s eating, feed her apart from the other dogs, pick up toys and chews when they’re not being used and don’t bother her when she’s sleeping in her bed.
If the guarding is severe (your dog lunges, chases or bites to get people and other dogs to back off) or if your dog guards different random things (a pen on the floor, an empty toilet roll on the holder, the washing machine, the doorway), or if you have young children and elderly senior citizens at home, you should call a professional behaviourist for help. If the guarding is severe (your dog lunges, chases or bites to get people and other dogs to back off) or if your dog guards different random things (a pen on the floor, an empty toilet roll on the holder, the washing machine, the doorway), or if you have young children and elderly senior citizens at home, you should call a professional behaviourist for help.
You can help prevent resource guarding from developing by working with your puppy to associate people with good things and to drop and swap. For example, you can hand feed your pup, or when pup is eating, walk by and drop something nice in her bowl. Build up so you can stand next to her and drop nice things in her bowl and then touch her and eventually touch the bowl while dropping nice things in it. You can do the same with her bed or any other favourite sleeping place.
Practice swapping toys and chews so that you taking stuff away isn’t a bad thing. Always swap with an item of equal or higher value. You wouldn’t be too happy if someone took away your bowl of ice-cream and gave you Brussels sprouts instead, so don’t take away a juicy bone and replace it with a dry bit of kibble.
Whether your dog has deep, menacing bark, or a high-pitched yelp, the noise is both disruptive and annoying. However, barking is one of those behaviours that dogs do naturally – and, to be honest, we do want our dogs to bark so that we know when there is an intruder. What we don’t want is the continuous bark, bark, bark that makes the neighbours complain.
Before you can address barking problems, you need to know what’s motivating the behaviour.
Make sure you’re rewarding quiet behaviour or a distracting trick, rather than the barking itself.
There are 2 other reasons dogs bark: Anxiety and boredom, and it’s not always easy to tell them apart.
Boredom barking is not accompanied by any anxious behaviour, such as panting, pacing, howling, whining and destructive behaviour, such as chewing the door or digging under the gate. Boredom barking also tends not to have an ‘edge’ to the tone. It’s a continuous toneless bark bark bark, as opposed to a higher-pitched yip or panicked bark.
You can address boredom barking by giving your dog more things to occupy her time and tire her mind, including puzzle feeders, treasure hunts, frozen Kongs, good walks daily, and training.
Anxiety-based barking may require the help of a qualified behaviourist.
Digging is an inherent doggy behaviour that is perfectly normal. It’s also part of some dogs’ genetic makeup, especially terriers. Dogs can dig because they’re hot and looking for cool sand to lie in (remember that while the world gets warmer), because they’re hunting underground critters, because they’re hiding or unearthing toys and bones, and because they’re bored. In all of these instances, you can give your dog a ‘legal’ digging patch, preferably in a shady, sheltered area. You can bury treasures in the patch so that your dog is rewarded for digging there and will do so more often. If you catch your dog digging elsewhere, simply redirect to the digging patch. You can also ramp up the mental stimulation your dogs get and make daily walks nice and sniffy.
Other reasons for digging include anxiety and the need to escape or gain access. Motivating factors in these instances can be complicated and it’s best to seek a qualified behaviourist for help.
Believe it or not but messing in the home is one of the most common reasons people return dogs to shelters – even puppies are returned because they ‘eliminate inappropriately’ on the carpets. The reason is usually very simple: Dogs haven’t been housetrained properly.
Many people don’t realise that it can take up to 6 months for puppies to be properly housetrained. They stop housetraining too early and then say things like, “She knows she mustn’t pee on the rug, but she does it out of spite.” The truth is, she doesn’t know, and dogs aren’t capable of spite. You’ll have to start your housetraining from scratch. Dr. Sophia Yin has some good advice.
Accidents can also be caused by health problems, particularly bladder infections, so if an older dog suddenly starts urinating in the house, you should take her to the vet before you do anything else.
There are other reasons for inappropriate elimination:
Some dogs also eliminate inappropriately when they’re anxious. In this case it’s best to call a qualified behaviourist, as there may be underlying issues that aren’t obvious to the untrained eye.
Mounting or humping is one of the most embarrassing things that dogs can do for their parents. Again, it is perfectly normal for dogs. It’s also not always about sexual stimulation. Anxious dogs may mount or hump people or objects to make themselves feel better, after all, it does feel good. Male and female dogs may mount to relieve stress or anxiety. Once they learn that the behaviour is a good way feel better, they may do it more often until it becomes a coping mechanism. If that’s the case, sterilisation won’t do anything to stop the behaviour.
Dogs may also mount other dogs during play, usually when they get overexcited and don’t know what else to do with themselves. Dogs who are undersocialised or don’t understand healthy play behaviour may also hump inappropriately.
Distraction is a good way to deal with the problem. As soon as your dog looks like she’s getting ready to hump something, or you can see her excitement levels reach boiling over point, distract her with something, like play a game, give her something to chew or get her to do some tricks or teach her a new trick.
You can also use time-outs if distraction doesn’t work, especially if she mounts people or other dogs. Simply remove your dog from the situation and give her a short time-out in the bathroom or behind a baby gate. After a few minutes, let her out and act as is if nothing has happened.
Try to avoid any stressful situations that could trigger the behaviour and work to change your dog’s attitude in those situations using positive reinforcement.
If your dog’s humping behaviour is compulsive or particularly persistent you should contact a behaviourist for help.
There are 3 important things to remember when it comes to dealing with behaviour problems in dogs:
This website is intended for informational purposes only, and does not replace consulting an animal health or training expert.