How to prevent dog behaviour problems

The best way to prevent behaviour problems in dogs is to understand two very important things:

1) Dogs do what works for them

They don’t have ulterior motives, they don’t act out of revenge or spite, and they are incapable of making moral decisions, so they don’t understand the difference between right and wrong. All they know is that if a behaviour results in something good, they will do it again.

2) Dogs are learning all the time

Dogs learn from every action they take and from every interaction with you – even if you didn’t mean to teach anything. For example, after dinner, you leave a plate with some gravy on the table and your dog jumps up to lick the plate. That worked very well for your dog, so she’ll try it again. If, the next time she tries it, there is no plate but there are some crumbs from your lunchtime sandwich, it worked very well again. So she’ll try it again.

The important thing for you to understand is that you can change the lesson – without punishment. Just make sure you don’t leave anything on the table ever again. However, take note; it takes longer to unlearn a lesson than to learn it. For example, if there is nothing for her the next time she jumps on the table, it, not to worry, there might be something later, so she’ll try again. If there is nothing when she tries again, not to worry, there might be something later. If there is nothing when she tries again, not to worry, there might be something later. If there is nothing when she tries again … well, her lucky streak is over and she’ll give up trying because it just doesn’t work.

But: If you slip up and accidentally leave something nice on the table at some point in the future, and she happens to find it, you’re back to square one. In fact, you’re at square zero because she’s just learnt that she has to persevere for longer – eventually the behaviour will pay.

The really good news

The good news is that if you start on the right foot, you can prevent your dog from developing problem (‘bad’ or inappropriate) behaviour. It doesn’t matter whether you’re bringing home a puppy or an older dog from a shelter, if you focus on what you want your dog to do and you make those behaviours work, you can help your dog adjust to living with your family easily.

It helps if you change your mind set. Instead of thinking how to stop your dog from doing something, think about what you want her to do instead. For example, don’t think, how can I stop my dog jumping on the couch? Try, how can I encourage my dog to lie on her bed?

That simple switch from negative to positive takes pressure out of the situation and allows you to help your dog make the correct decisions.

Be a guide – a good one

Imagine you visit a country where the culture is completely foreign to yours. There is no Google and there are no guide books, so you know absolutely nothing about the country or its people. Now imagine going out to buy some bread. You’d find it pretty difficult, wouldn’t you? You’d probably make several mistakes and may even offend people by your behaviour. Now imagine that for every mistake, someone pinched your ear, squirted you with water, sounded a horn, smacked you with a newspaper, threw on your ground and turned you on your back, or gave you a shock. How would you feel? Confused? Scared? Frustrated? Angry? Depressed?

This is how your dog feels when she first comes home. She has no clue what the rules are or what you expect of her. The only thing she can do is try stuff. If she’s punished for trying stuff (urinating on the carpet, digging in the garden, jumping on people) she will feel confused, scared, frustrated, angry and depressed. She may start to become defensive or reactive or she could become depressed and simply give up trying anything at all.

Go back to your foreign trip. If, instead of being punished without knowing why, someone came along and gently helped you do the right things, if they interrupted you before you made a big mistake and showed you the correct thing to do instead, wouldn’t that make it easier to adapt? You would gain confidence from every successful interaction. You would be emboldened to try new things. And you would slowly start to learn the language, picking up words and sign as you go.

It’s the same with your dog. Start off by rewarding and encouraging the behaviour you want. For example, if you want a strong default sit, reward her when she’s sitting outside and enjoying the sun, reward her when she sits next to you for attention, reward her for sitting quietly when she’s in the same room as the cats, reward her for sitting and watching your kids play with a ball or ride their bikes.

She’ll soon learn that sitting works very well for her, in fact it’s about the best thing she can do. And, because she’s been rewarded in different settings, contexts and environments, she learns that it doesn’t matter where she is or what’s going on, sitting is a good choice.

Instead of punishing her for doing something wrong, 1) interrupt the behaviour and show her the correct alternative, 2) ignore the behaviour and reward the alternative, 3) manage the environment so she can’t practice the behaviour.

  1. Interrupt her before she starts to wee on the carpet, take her outside and reward her when she’s finished.
  2. Ignore her jumping for attention (don’t even look at her) and reward her for sitting.
  3. Put her in a pen while you’re eating so she can’t beg or jump on the table
Set her up for success instead waiting to see if she will fail.

Training underlines behaviour

Because dogs are learning all the time, every interaction is a training opportunity. It’s not just about teaching sit, stay and come when called. It’s also about building your dog’s confidence, improving your bond, and preventing problems like resource guarding and teaching impulse control.

Crate training is also important because it teaches dogs how to settle, how to go to bed without a fight and how to cope with confinement – and crates provide a safe place when dogs need a timeout.

The earlier you start training the better, so if you have a puppy, enrol them in puppy school as soon as you bring them home, even if they are only 8 weeks old. Do exactly the same thing if you adopt an older dog. Most dog training schools have classes for puppies (up to 4 or 5 months), adolescents (up to 7 or 8 months) and older dogs (9 months and older), so you can slot in no matter how old your dog.

Just remember that while old dogs can learn new tricks, it may take them a little longer. Puppies are blank slates and their brains are sponges so they soak up learning. Older dogs have baggage and old habits that they have to get over first. They have to learn to learn and they have to learn to like it. It’s very important that you don’t put undue pressure on your older dog or you could turn them off learning for life.

Training classes will give you the tools and the support you need to make training a lifelong pastime.

Manage your dog’s environment

Your dog’s environment – your home, your family, even where the neighbourhood is located – affects behaviour.

For example:

Dogs in homes with 3 young children, all who have friends coming in and the house, shouting and clattering toys and sports equipment, may be overexcited and live in a state of high arousal without much downtime. They could lack impulse control and be reactive to other noisy situations.

It’s important to be aware of your dog’s character and how her environment affects her. In the example above, the dog should be given her own space where she can lie down and sleep or just relax where she won’t be disturbed by the children. The space should be out of the way and somewhere quiet. The kids can also be encouraged to do quiet activities with her, so that not all interaction is a high-energy adventure. A nice idea is to just sit and read aloud to her. Kids and dogs both benefit.

Provide legitimate outlets for normal doggy behaviour

A lot of problem behaviour from a human point of view, is perfectly normal for dogs. That doesn’t mean it’s not annoying. So instead of trying to eliminate it, it’s best to provide a ‘legal’ outlet for them to practice doggy behaviour.

For example:

Provide dogs with a digging patch where they can dig in peace. Encourage digging there by burying nice treats that surface as treasures every now and then. Redirect your dog to the digging patch if you catch them trying to dig up the lawn or your roses.

Instead of feeding your dogs 2 (or 3) square meals from a bowl, use some of the food to get in some training and scatter the rest around the garden so she has to use her nose and her brain to scent it out. If your dog is on raw food, you can put it in a Kong so that it takes her a while to figure out how to get it all out.

It’s also a good idea to feed dogs in a multi-dog household separately. It can prevent food guarding in the first place and it’s the best way to manage existing food guarding.

Exercise

A great deal of behaviour problems are caused because dogs are bored or under-stimulated. This is especially true if you have working dog breed – breeds with specific jobs – including collies, golden retrievers, jack russells, cocker spaniels, huskies and any pointer or lurcher-type dogs.

Walking off property is one of the best things you can do for your dog; all of sights, sounds and smells are very enriching, plus there’s the physical exercise. Walking in different locations is also important, so vary your route or your destination (park, forest, beach, riverside, countryside, etc.). Even walking around the block in the other direction is a change.

Remember that while the exercise is important, the experience is even more so. Let your dog stop and sniff and urinate as much as she likes. You can then vary your pace to meet your dog’s exercise needs, so jog a bit, walk slowly a bit, walk quickly a bit, run a bit, etc. The change will also make you more interesting to your dog (what is mom going to do next? I can’t wait to see), so she also pays you more attention.

Try for one walk a day, even if it’s only 10 minutes around the block, but then compensate for it over the weekend with some long trips out.

Dogs also need mental exercise, which is one reason training classes are great. They provide an environment in which you and your dog are encouraged to focus on one another and work together to achieve a goal. Obedience classes are good for learning the basics, but there are many more options that are infinitely more fun, and more challenging.

Dog dancing (canine freestyle) is essentially trick training to music and is challenging for dogs and people. Agility meets physical and mental exercise requirements, again for dogs and people. Flyball is great for high-energy dogs, field trials are good for cocker spaniels and shepherding dogs and there is even parkour for dogs if you really want to show off.

Some problems can’t be prevented

Some behaviour problems are passed on genetically. So if you are going to get a purebred, pedigree dog, always make sure you choose a reputable breeder, with healthy lines and who is more than happy for you to meet both parents.

Even then some problems slip through the gaps; for example, the breeding male in a certain line may bark and growl at strangers, but the breeder might not see it as a problem. Then you bring home a pup and do all the right socialisation things and one day your pup takes a bite out of the gardening service.

Fear is also strongly genetic, so a nervous mom might birth pups who are all on the back foot when it comes to anxiety and fear.

So, if you notice a behaviour problem the first thing you should do is find and contact a reputable, professional, accredited animal behaviourist.

Never ignore the problem and hope it will go away or your dog will grow out of it. Puppies do go through several fear periods until they are about 12 months old and they do usually ‘grow out of it’ but severe fear reactions will need to be managed with the help of a behaviourist. You might also feel more comfortable contacting a behaviourist for advice so that you don’t inadvertently make the fear worse.

Do not get another dog in the hopes that they will help your ‘problem’ dog settle down, gain confidence, and expend excess energy. Very often your new dog will just learn the problem behaviour from your other dog and then you have double the trouble.

Resources

Mario Ancic has a great website that helps dog guardians negotiate living with a dog. He also makes the very good point that using his website, or any other website does not replace consulting a trainer or behaviourist. Arming yourself with knowledge is great, but you should always consult a professional.

Pippa Mattinson is also a great resource; she has several websites, including Totally Dog Training.

Dr. Sophia Yin pioneered a lot of our understanding of dog behaviour, so you might want to bookmark her site.

You can find out more about clicker training from the lady who introduced the method to pet parents the world over: Karen Pryor.

Disclaimer

This website is intended for informational purposes only, and does not replace consulting an animal health or training expert.