Solving dog behaviour problems

Many dog owners experience behaviour problems with their dogs.  A lot of the time these problems are quite minor but they can be frustrating and other times they can be downright embarrassing!  Some problems such as barking at the postman and excavating your garden are quite natural behaviour for dogs but can still be considered unwelcome behaviour.  There are also more serious problems such as aggression and biting, which can be a danger to your dog and others, and these problems absolutely have to be dealt with.

In order to deal with your pets behavioural problems it is important to determine the reason for the behaviour, understand how to deal with the cause and provide for your pets needs rather than take away the symptoms using quick fixes or harsh methods.  Resolving the cause of such problems can lead to a much happier pet/owner relationship than trying to force your dog to behave in a certain way.

Most behavioural problems are a consequence of dogs feeling isolated and suffering emotions such as anxiety and boredom or dogs lacking in socialization who have not been introduced to new experiences early enough.

Here are the 10 most common dog behaviour problems and tips on how to deal with them.  However, if your dog has a serious behavioural problem you should always consult a pet behaviour counsellor who will be able to advise you about the correct way to resolve the problem, which will be tailored to your pet.

1.  Excessive Barking

It is quite natural for dogs to bark and this is normally in response to something they’ve seen or heard such as next door’s cat, other barking dogs or a pigeon trespassing on their garden but excessive barking, whining or howling is another matter altogether.   It can cause problems for both you and your neighbours.

First you will need to understand why your dog is barking so much.  Is he trying to get your attention, anxious or bored?

The reason most dogs bark excessively is that they are not getting the stimulation they need.  If this is the case the solution is simple, make sure your dog gets more stimulation, long walks, games of fetch, plenty of company and maybe even agility classes if your pooch needs a lot of exercise and stimulation to keep him happy.   If you struggle to find the time to walk your dog every day or take him out for long walks then you could consider employing a dog walker.  Most dog walkers will walk your dog with others meaning that your dog does not only gets the exercise he needs but also socialization with other dogs.

Another reason your dog might be barking is that he has learnt that he gets rewarded for it.  If your dog is barking excessively do you shout him inside to give him a treat or chase him round the garden to get him to shut up?  If so, your dog might have learnt to bark just to get a treat or a game of chase.  In this case you will need to learn to divert your dog’s attention, make a short loud noise to get your dog’s attention.  Once he is quiet you can reward him but make sure you only ever reward the silence.  You will obviously need to stop chasing him and giving him treats as well!

If your dog barks at you for attention don’t ever reward him with fuss, praise or treats.  Turn your back on him and don’t give him any attention until he is quiet.

2.  Destructive Chewing

It is natural for dogs to chew, especially teething puppies but chewing can develop into a far more serious problem.  Older dogs or powerful chewers can cause a lot of damage.  Most are not fussed about what they will chew on and can destroy anything from your favourite pair of shoes to your antique sideboard! It is also possible for them to injure themselves, especially their mouths, teeth and gums.

The most common reasons dogs chew are:-

  • Teething (puppies will usually chew on objects to help them cope with the pain and sensations of teething)
  • Curiosity  (puppies are naturally very curious and it is quite normal for them to explore with their mouths)
  • Boredom (especially if dogs are left alone for long periods of time with nothing to occupy them)
  • Excess energy

If your puppy is teething then you will need to provide plenty of chew toys and other things to keep him busy but make sure they do not resemble things you do not want him to chew.  Then teach him the correct things to chew.  If you find him chewing something he shouldn’t then remove the item with a firm ‘No’ and give him something he is allowed to chew on.  Reinforce that behaviour by giving praise when you find him chewing something he should.

The solution to any other reason for chewing is to keep your dog stimulated both mentally and physically.  Make sure your dog has regular walks and plenty of exercise and leave him in a safe enclosed area with plenty of toys to occupy him when you leave the house.  Correct your dog immediately if you find him chewing anything that he shouldn’t and replace the item with one of his own toys.

3. Separation Anxiety

There are a lot of dogs that become very anxious at the thought of being left alone.   To avoid this they constantly follow their owners and seek attention.  When their owners leave they can whine, bark, howl, behave destructively and even struggle to control their bladders.

Minor separation anxiety problems can be turned around with some changes to your own behaviour but more serious problems will need the advice of a pet behaviour counsellor.

In any case of problematic behaviour prevention is better than cure so teach your dog to be independent from the very beginning.  If your dog has a minor case of separation anxiety following these tips might help some way towards turning his behaviour around.

  • Teach your dog that the place in which you leave him when you go out is a fun place to be, leave him in a safe secure dog-proofed area with plenty of toys to keep him busy.  Toys that can be stuffed with treats can be a great way to keep him occupied.
  • Don’t make a big fuss of your dog before you leave, withdraw your attention from him about 20 minutes beforehand and show him that it is no big deal.  Don’t make a fuss of him when you return either and wait a while before giving him any attention.
  • Don’t completely change his environment when you leave the house, consider leaving a light on and the radio or TV so that your dog will not feel quite so alone.
  • An adult dog should not be left alone for more than 4 – 6 hours and puppies less than that depending on their age.  If you have to be out of the house for long periods of time on a regular basis employ a dog walker or dog sitter.
  • Make sure your dog has plenty of exercise.  It may help to walk your dog or give him some exercise before you leave.

4. Excessive Digging

Digging is completely natural behaviour for dogs and some dogs just love to dig.   This is especially true for hunting breeds that were bred to dig, search and hunt.  However, excessive digging can be a problem when your dog decides that it is his job to dig tunnels and burrows in your garden.  Some dogs can dig massive holes in a matter of seconds so it does not take long for your entire garden to be destroyed.

The most common reasons why dogs dig excessively are:-

  • Excess energy
  • Boredom
  • Anxiety
  • Instinct
  • Comfort (usually for cooling off on hot days)
  • Burying food, bones or toys
  • Escape

First of all, consider why your dog is digging as that will go a long way to helping you resolve the problem.  Giving plenty of exercise and stimulation will stop some dogs from digging but you will also need to supervise your dog while he is in the garden and train him not to dig.  If you do not communicate to your dog that digging up your garden is unacceptable he will not be aware that he is doing anything wrong. Do not allow him to have unlimited access to your garden especially while you are out.  If your dog is not disciplined correctly then as far as he is aware he’s giving himself exercise, occupying his time and doing his job if that’s what he has been bred to do!

It may help to set aside part of the garden or a sandbox where your dog can dig and encourage him to dig there by burying some of his favourite treats and rewarding him for digging in the correct spot.

5. Begging

Begging is not a natural behaviour for a dog, it is learned and it does not take a dog long to realise that begging, especially with puppy eyes, might get him some tasty treats.   A lot of owners do not see begging as a problem and some even encourage the behaviour but this can lead to obesity and other behavioural problems.  A dog would never beg for food from his pack leader or other higher-ranking members of his pack, although he might make direct challenges for food.  If you have taught your dog to beg then you are giving him mixed messages and if your dog is making direct challenges for food he must be taught his ‘place’ in the pecking order.

The best way to deal with begging, as most problems, is to never start the behaviour in the first place.  Do not share your own food with your puppy, (even if he does bat his cute little puppy eyes at you).  Do not slip him food under the dining table or allow anyone else to do so.

If it is too late for prevention then the best way to deal with this is not to allow your dog to sit drooling where you or anyone else is eating.  Do not leave food sitting out on the kitchen worktops.  Put your dog in another room or in his crate while you and your family are eating or if he is in the same room give him a firm command to take himself elsewhere if he does go near anyone who is eating.

6. Improper defecation and urination

This is quite normal for young puppies but can be very embarrassing when your dog is old enough to be properly housetrained.  There are a number of reasons that older dogs, even properly housetrained ones may have accidents or even soil somewhere they shouldn’t on purpose.  These include:-

  • Submissiveness (this is done instinctively by a dog to show as clearly as he can in ‘dog language’ that he knows who is boss)
  • Excitement (more common in much older or younger dogs who have less bladder control)
  • Being left alone too long (in which case this is your problem and not your dogs)
  • Illness (any sudden change in your dog’s toilet habits could be a sign of illness, so consult your vet immediately)
  • Age (elderly dogs can suffer from incontinence but should be examined by your vet if they become incontinent)
  • Marking territory (this is instinctive behaviour for dogs and particularly for un-neutered dogs)
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Attention seeking
  • Insufficient housetraining

With this type of problem it is essential to identify the cause so it can be properly rectified.   Solutions will range from not allowing your dog to become excited, ensuring any sudden changes in toilet behaviour are reported to your vet to identify whether illness is the cause and neutering your dog.  As always, you will need to ensure your pet is getting plenty of exercise, stimulation and not being left alone for too long to ensure that this is not the cause of the problem.

If you cannot identify the cause of the problem behaviour then consult a pet behaviour counsellor who should be able to assist you.

7. Jumping up on people

Jumping up on you and others is not only annoying but it can be dangerous and cause injury.  Some people say they do not mind and sometimes you just think your dog is pleased to see you and enjoy the attention, but this would be a different matter if your dog knocked someone over, especially a small child, or caused an injury with his claws.   Jumping up can also be a sign of dominance

You will need to teach your dog from the very start that it is just not acceptable to jump up on people.  A dog has to be taught that jumping up is acceptable or not, they will not understand that they should not jump up on you because you are wearing your best clothes and just about to go out if it’s ok at other times.

The best solution for this problem is to ensure your dog gets no attention for jumping up or any other excitable greeting behaviour.  Don’t touch, look or speak to your dog.  Turn away from him and completely ignore him until he is calm and then reward the calm behaviour.  You will also need to ensure that others do the same.

8. Chasing

Dogs instinctively chase moving objects such as other animals, bikes, cars and even small children.  It is in their nature to run after prey or livestock, either to catch or herd them.  Most dogs will chase a cat, squirrel or a bird just for the fun of it and wouldn’t have the first idea what they would do if they caught it but chasing could cause serious harm to other animals and to your dog.

Unfortunately, there is not a huge amount you can do to stop your dog wanting to chase the squirrel it’s just seen but you can manage your dog’s environment so that it cannot get into danger.  For example, walk your dog on an extendable lead so that he cannot run off into the road if he sees something to chase but so that he can have some freedom where appropriate.  If possible, allow your dog off lead in an enclosed area so that he can do some chasing to release some of the stress he will be suffering at not being able to chase every cat, bird and bike that he sees.

9. Biting other animals and people

For puppies this is normal behaviour fuelled by curiosity and can easily be rectified with proper training.  For older dogs this can be a sign of fear, protection, pain and dominance.  The best solution to this problem is responsible breeding, good socialization and proper training.

If it is reported that your dog has bitten someone then you will need to establish whether it was actually a bite or just a warning.  A dog bite is a puncture wound where the skin has been broken.  An adult dog will very rarely bite unless he is provoked or attacked.  A snap or a near miss means that a dog did not intend to bite, in this case it was simply intended as a warning.

To resolve such a problem you will need to understand the cause.  What has frightened or provoked him?  Was he trying to protect himself or someone else? Was he in pain and were his warnings to leave him alone ignored?

This is another situation where you vet should be consulted to rule out illness and the advice of a pet behaviour counsellor should be sought.

10. Aggressive Behaviour

The most common causes of aggressive behaviour are abuse and lack of proper socialization and training.

If your dog suddenly begins behaving aggressively then consult your vet to rule out illness or health problems.  If this is not the cause then you should consult a pet behaviour counsellor to help you identify the cause and the solution.  The longer such a problem is left the worse it will get and attempts to deal with aggression in the wrong way could intensify the problem.

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