Behavior Problems in Dogs
There are many behavioral problems in dogs that leave us wondering: Why are they doing that? What are the causes and what can I do to stop such behavior? Some of the more frequently reported behavioral problems are described below.
Destructive behavior is one of the most common complaints from dog owners, and hence necessitates the most in-depth discussion. A dog quickly ceases to be ‘man’s best friend’ when he/she scratches up a prized rug, chews up a favourite sweater, or eats an expensive pair of shoes. Destructive behavior is due to many causes, including separation anxiety. Many owners are gone from the house for many hours during the day, and the result is that the dog has more opportunity to develop destructive behavior The problem with this is that owners come home and see the chewed object and will punish the dog at that time. The dog will not associate the act of destruction to the punishment because they will not understand exactly why you are upset. They will act ‘guilty’ because they know you are upset, but they will not associate your anger with their act of destroying the object. Therefore, do not punish a dog for its behavior unless you catch him in the act.
Another reason for destructive behavior is lack of environmental stimulation. Boredom may be a cause, or at least a contributing factor, especially in young or large dogs that do not receive adequate exercise. Dogs need environmental stimulation. Obtaining a second pet or providing interesting and interactive toys for the dog may help. For example, a hollow toy filled with solid treats or peanut butter encourages the dog to interact with the ball to get at the treats.
Finally, destructive behavior could also occur due to barrier frustration. This may result if the dog has been punished by being put in a closed room or into a fenced yard, or it may be caused by the presence of something very desirable on the other side of the barrier. In these cases, the dog will try hard to break through the barrier and may destroy the door frame or door knobs, for example.
To treat destructive problems, one must determine the exact cause of the behavior and remedy this cause accordingly. For example, a young dog that is chewing furniture but not doorways is mostly likely in need of more environmental stimulation. Increasing exercise, providing another animal companion, putting the radio on, decreasing anxiety, or giving chew toys only when the owners are away are other treatments.
Preventing such behavior from developing is always easier than trying to treat it afterwards. Puppy owners should avoid giving the puppy old shoes or a piece of rug to chew on because the animal will not be able to differentiate between an old sneaker and the new leather dress shoe. Dog toys should be provided, but they should be a type and texture that the dog can easily distinguish from forbidden objects. It is also a good idea to be consistent when presenting toys to the dog and make it obvious that the toy indeed belongs to the dog. Puppies should be left in their crate when the owners are gone from the house. The crate should not be the place where you confine the dog as punishment. The crate is their ‘den’ and the puppy should learn that it is their own safe haven.
Aggression is also a common complaint from dog owners and is a serious threat to public safety. Refer to the article on aggression and biting at http://www.pets.ca/articles/article-dog-aggression.htm for more information. Biting should be discouraged during puppy-hood. Refer to the article on what to do if you have a ‘mouthy puppy’ here: http://www.pets.ca/articles/article-dogmouthy.htm
Excessive barking can be disruptive to you and the neighbours. But before considering drastic surgery such as debarking (which is not recommended), determine where and when the dog is barking. If it occurs only when out in the backyard alone, the solution is to keep the dog indoors and accompany the dog on a leash outside. More commonly, dogs bark at strangers or visitors to the house. This is due to territorial behavior and the dog is simply protecting his/her property – that may include you. It is your task to teach the dog to stop inappropriate barking. Use positive reinforcement to modify the dog’s behavior For example, when the dog barks, call him/her over or command him/her to sit and reward with a tasty treat. Do not use negative punishment because it may cause fear in the dog, which may exacerbate the barking problem. For more on eliminating barking problems, refer to the article here: http://www.pets.ca/articles/article-dog_barking.htm or here: http://www.pets.ca/articles/article-bark-alone.htm
Jumping up on people
Jumping up on people is a common behavioral problem that is usually minor, unless the dog is very large or the owner has small children. The problem persists because the dog continues to receive the attention that he/she wants. The best solution is to train the dog that jumping up will get him/her no attention. Ignore the dog completely when he/she attempts to jump up on you. Look upward and fold your arms across your chest so the dog receives no physical or visual contact. Command the dog to sit calmly. Once he/she sits, you may reward with attention. Be consistent and have the entire family participate in this training. The dog will soon learn that jumping up will get him/her no attention.
Pica is defined as the abnormal ingestion of materials that are not normally food. These include soil, gravel, or feces. Puppies are notorious for eating inappropriate objects that must sometimes be surgically removed from the gastrointestinal tract. Occasionally, pica may be a sign of a deficiency in their diet, but more frequently, it is simply due to the animal’s own curiosity. One of the most troubling forms of pica is the ingestion of feces (coprophagia). Unless the feces contains parasites, coprophagia affects the owner’s aesthetic values more than the dog’s health. However, to change such a habit, owners can sprinkle pepper on the feces to make it less appealing to the dog. Another approach is to inject hot sauce into the center of feces so the dog cannot smell that it has been been altered.
Self-mutilation is a behavioral problem caused by excessive licking and/or biting of the animal’s own body. The affected areas can progress to lick granulomas (hairless areas of thickened, irritated skin) or more serious, infected wounds. An indication of the dog licking at an area is discolouration of the fur. Saliva will cause fur to redden. In the absence of other diseases that cause itching (such as parasites or allergies), this self-mutilation has a psychological cause. Boredom, changes in the environment, or other stress factors are examples of possible causes.
Tail chasing is a phenomenon that is often humorous to people. However, it should be considered a behavior problem and should not be encouraged. The cause is unknown. Restraint seems to exacerbate the problem, so eliminating cage confinement and distracting the dog while he/she is chasing may help. Tail chasing is also often a sign of boredom and inadequate exercise.
Dogs have an interesting variety of phobias, including fear of thunderstorms, fireworks, street noises, or cars. Occasionally, the phobia can be traced to a bad experience that the dog had in the past. A common phobia is fear of thunderstorms. Those dogs may become frantic or try to run away during storms. In severe cases, the dog will try to escape by clawing through doors, or jumping high fences. The presence of the owner or a blanket to cover the dog often helps. Progressive desensitization for thunder phobias is a commonly used treatment method. A good quality recording of thunder is played quietly to the dog while positive reinforcement is given, such as treats. The volume of the recording is increased progressively as the dog becomes more and more comfortable with the noise. This can be done daily in 10-minute sessions. If the problem is very serious, calming medication may be needed during storms.
Car chasing/Running away
Car chasing and running away are problems that can be prevented by keeping the dog on a leash, under voice control, or in a sturdy pen at all times. If you wish to let your dog off-leash, do so in a fenced backyard or designated fenced dog park. Once a dog has learned to chase cars or to roam, it can often find ways to escape confinement, so restraint as well as behavioral modification methods should be used. For example, squirting the dog with a water pistol or frightening him/her with a loud noise (i.e. an empty pop can filled with pebbles dropped on the ground behind the dog) can discourage the dog from running onto the road.
Digging holes in the yard is a problem that arises when the dog is trying to escape from the yard. Dogs also dig to keep cool or to catch rodents. If the dog is left outdoors during hot weather, ensure the dog has a cool shelter with plenty of water available. Eliminate rodents and put chicken wire where the dog likes to dig to deter it. If the dog is a natural digger like a Terrier then the digging has a genetic component. Consider giving the dog an area where it is allowed to dig.
By Amy Cheung – Pets.ca writer