It is very important for dog parents to be able to recognize traits of behavior problems in their dogs, before situations escalate out of control and implementing remedial measures becomes difficult and time-consuming. Timely intervention through early commencement of general obedience training is the first step towards keeping your dog mentally upbeat and in line with the rules of the house. However, early and thorough obedience training, notwithstanding, dogs do develop behavioral issues.
The “problem” tag: Before I proceed on to talk about the common behavior problems in our dogs, it is pertinent to understand that indiscriminate labeling of a behavior as a “problem behavior” might blinker our vision about the ethology and science behind natural canine behaviors and how it has evolved over time. Most behaviors that appear problematic to us, humans, are in fact exhibition of natural dog behavior; but because our living conditions are essentially different, many natural doggie behaviors become unacceptable to us. For example, it is perfectly natural for dogs to chew (on probably soft things she finds lying around), or be possessive about her food and toys, or jump up to greet people (she is actually trying to reach to your face), but these behaviors don’t find popularity with human beings owing to the physical or mental hassle they cause to us. Thus our dogs in such scenario need to be taught what behavior is acceptable and what is not. At the same time, they need to be guided to and given opportunities to engage in alternate acceptable behaviors instead. So though I mention the term “behavior problems” many a times in this piece, I would rather like myself and my readers to interpret it as behavioral incompatibilities instead. The fact that the behavior is unacceptable or irritable to us does not vindicate it to be a problem!
The ego deadlock: It’s worthwhile to mention here that an impasse trainers and behaviorists often face while solving problem behaviors is an intercession of ego on part of the dog-parents while dealing with the problems. Parents often see as their dog being spiteful in displaying a certain behavior. “She tore apart my shoes to get back at me for being away for long” or “She peed in the middle of the living room to get back at me for scolding her earlier” are common explanations dog parents make up to explain why their dog is behaving in a certain way. As a result the situation becomes a tad confrontational. Interesting, there has been no scientific basis to prove that dogs are vengeful by nature or that they chose their actions to annoy their humans. They are incapable of such complicated emotions. Dogs behave in a way simply because they reap some benefits from doing so. It is unnecessary to feel bad or draw ego clashes while dealing with our dogs’ problems. To reap the best results, our approach should be pragmatic. Also while solving behavior issues, I focus on what the dog is presently doing and how that can be changed. Trying to figure out what is going on in the mind of the dog for him to be behaving in a certain way is irrelevant to the problem at hand and its purported solution.
The following are some of the common problems dog parents often face, all of which are modifiable with professional intervention. Smart Canines specializes in dealing with such problems and offers appropriate solutions through behavior modification counseling. However, time taken will vary from dog to dog depending upon the individual dog’s level of trainability, how thorough has been her basic obedience training, the severity of the problem at hand, consistence maintained in the rehabilitation program and sometimes (though rarely) on the breed.
- House-Soiling – House soiling is the direct result of unsound or no toilet training done during the early age of a puppy. A puppy either has never been guided or inconsistently guided about where she should eliminate. Consistency is the key to establishing good and unfaltering toilet habits. If done correctly a pup learns in a week itself. No matter how old a dog is, to resolve house soiling issue, one needs to go back to the basics and start correct toilet-training afresh.
- Destructive Chewing – Chewing is a natural dog behavior. Puppies and dogs chew and need to chew throughout their lives. Puppies need it more to soothe their gums and puppy-teeth. However, if not directed and supervised carefully or if left alone for long, puppies and dogs may start chewing up inappropriate stuffs that are not meant to be, causing physical damage to household stuffs and thus burning holes in our pockets. Also swallowing some of the stuff can lead to hazardous situation for the pup. Chewing as a behavior cannot be completely eradicated; however the dog needs to be taught to chew only on items that have been given to her for the purpose. This in conjunction with a few more house-rules (on part of the humans) can easily divert the dog from destructive chewing.
- Excessive Barking – Barking is a form of vocal communication in dogs. Some dogs do it more often than others just like some of us are more garrulous compared to others. However, excessive barking and especially inappropriate timing of vocalization by our dogs becomes a nuisance to our social existence and threatens us to become target of our neighbours’ disgust due to obvious reasons. This problem can also be solved by steering the dog’s energy correctly and with proper obedience training.
- Impolite Door-Greeting – As mentioned before, it is perfectly natural for a dog to want to jump up to our faces to greet us; just like dogs sniff each other’s mouth (and rear as well) to say “hello”. However, this might cause physical injury and other discomfort to us especially if the dogs are large breeds. (This in no way is an excuse to allow small dogs to jump – all dogs, irrespective of size and breed need to be taught not to jump and lunge at visitors and you at the door).
- Pulling on Leash – This problem again sprouts from incorrect leash-walking training. Dogs are excited when they are taken out for their daily walks. They look forward for this time and hence it’s very natural for them to pull in excitement – dragging you across the neighborhood in the process. This can be both dangerous and embarrassing. This problem can also be resolved by going back to the basics of leash-walking training. Walks with your dogs should be relaxing and fun, not an activity that you dread!
- Resource Guarding – For its survival, an animal must guard the resources it owns. “Caring and sharing” is not an ideology that dogs (and most other species) subscribe to, especially where resources in nature are scarce and obtaining them requires expenditure of energy and risk. Hence when your dog is trying to guard her bone or toy, don’t get her wrong. She is not being spiteful – she is displaying a behavior that comes naturally to her. Most dogs won’t abdicate their possession without some amount of resistance. In case of some the resistance becomes huge and borders aggression. That is when professional intervention is required. The behavior can be resolved with a consistent and effective modification program.
- Fear of Strangers – Fear is also an important attribute of survival strategy for animals. It is natural for animals (and our dogs) to be fearful of strange objects, animals and people because they never know who might pose a danger to them. But with time and experience most dogs learn be to understand that most new things are often not dangerous. Some dogs remain more cynical through-out their lives. Whether fear in dogs causes a problem to their humans or not depends upon the severity of the problem. While some amount of fear is essential for survival and tactful at times, excessive and unnecessary fear of the unknown can often be heavily stressful for the dog and upsetting for the parents. It can take toll on the dog’s physical well being as well. The key to having an outgoing dog without fear issues is early and timely socialization. Most fear issues do not arise at all if dogs have been properly socialized to different things and people during their puppyhood. The missed opportunity during the puppyhood can never actually be compensated completely ever again in the dog’s lifetime. Nevertheless, with professional help, fear issues can be modified to a lot of extent. Sometimes medical intervention might also be required by your veterinarian.
- Food Aggression – Aggression over food or food-guarding is another form of display of resource guarding. The treatment of the problem is same as that of other forms of resource guarding. To keep this problem at bay from the very beginning, I often advise my clients to hand-feed their dogs from time to time for the dogs to be able to build trust in their humans. The key is to teach our dogs that there is no need for them to guard their stuff from us and that giving up things usually is profitable to them.
- Obsessive Compulsive Behaviors – The doggie relentlessly chasing (or trying to chase) the neighbourhood cats or the jumpy-crawly critters in your yard; digging incessantly when left in the yard, spinning round and round all day trying to chase her own tail, though unsuccessfully —- any of these sound familiar? Well, if your dog is displaying any of these or something similar she might be suffering from an obsessive compulsive disorder. Treatment of such problem might also need medical intervention, apart from behavior modification program, to ascertain or rule out if any medical issue is causing the problem.