By Dr. Becker
Most dog owners are at some point faced with a problem behavior in their otherwise adorable four-legged buddy.
When a troubling behavior arises in your pet, the first thing you should do is make an appointment with your vet to rule out an underlying physical cause for the behavior.
Pain can create or exacerbate undesirable behavior in animals.
So can a metabolic disorder, which is any disruption of the conversion of food to energy at the cellular level.
Examples of metabolic disorders include diabetes, Addison's disease, Cushing's syndrome, and hypo- or hyperthyroidism.
If a health problem is identified, it should of course be treated.
Only then will you know whether you're dealing with a true behavior problem or behavior resulting from a physical cause.
Once medical problems are either ruled out or resolved, undesirable behaviors can be addressed.
Identifying the Problem Behavior and Its Triggers
The next step is to identify the problem behavior, how often it occurs, how severe it is, and what triggers it.
Let's say your large dog gets very excited when guests come to visit and jumps up on them as his way of saying hello.
- Problem behavior: jumping up on people.
- Frequency: every time someone unfamiliar comes to the door.
- Severity: dog cannot be restrained; guests are pawed, scratched, licked, in danger of being tripped or knocked down.
- Trigger: visitors to your home.
Next Step: Avoiding the Triggers
Initially what you must do in a situation like the one above -- since you can't remove the trigger -- is remove your dog from the triggering situation. This means you'll need to put your dog in another room or the backyard before you open the door to guests.
This strategy as a first step helps your guests stay safe and stops the problem behavior from escalating.
The ultimate goal is to help your dog extinguish problem behaviors. But behavior modification training must be done when your pet is calm, because dogs don't learn well in a highly aroused state. Initial behavior modification efforts should take place outside the presence of the triggering event.
In the meantime, your focus should be on avoiding the triggers that provoke your dog's problem behavior so you can move forward safely and sanely with positive reinforcement behavior modification techniques.
Trigger Avoidance with Aggressive Dogs
If your pet is aggressive toward other dogs, places where lots of dogs gather should be avoided.
When you walk a dog-aggressive dog, try to steer clear of areas where there are other dogs, and pick times of day when few dogs are being walked. Find places to walk where you're not apt to encounter other dogs. And make sure your own energy is calm and relaxed on walks, because your dog will pick up on your mood.
When you do come upon another dog, create space between your dog and the other one, and keep your dog in control. Head collars can help, and avoid retractable leashes. Use a set-length leash for improved control.
If your dog is aggressive toward you or other family members, the first order of business is to take common-sense steps to prevent injury to the humans involved.
Identifying which situations seem to trigger your pet's aggressiveness is important. If your dog is aggressive at meal time, she should be fed in a quiet spot, and needless to say, she should not be disturbed while eating.
If she's aggressive when awakened, don't allow her to snooze on furniture, and if you need to wake her, call her from a distance.
If her aggression appears during a particular game you play with her, avoid the game.
If your dog is aggressive toward visitors, your first priority is to keep guests safe. Secure your dog in another area before allowing visitors into your home or yard. If you have a lot of visitors or your dog is hard to catch, leave a leash either by the door or on your pet to improve your control over the situation.
Trigger Avoidance with a Territorial Dog
If your dog snarls, growls or barks excessively looking out a window or door, or from behind your backyard fence, you'll need to block either his visual or physical access.
Close the blinds, close the door, or restrict your pet's access to the room or the fenced area where he becomes territorial.
If you have more than one dog and they fight, it's often a territorial behavior problem. Separate the dogs at meal time and maintain control over toys and any other triggers you've identified.
You might also choose to use leashes or head collars at home to have better control when a fight starts.
Managing a Destructive Dog
First, remove all temptations (also known as avoiding triggers). If your dog gets into the garbage, place it behind a cabinet door with a lock or in another hard-to-reach spot.
If your dog counter surfs, make sure no food is left out. If she chews up shoes, items of clothing or other belongings, make sure she doesn't have access to those things.
Provide your pet with plenty of exercise, attention, and toys that are mentally stimulating.
Crate train your dog and tuck her in there when there's no one available to supervise her behavior.
If she's eliminating indoors, review and implement house-training techniques.
Managing Your Own Response to Problem Behaviors
When your dog is actively engaged in a problem behavior, your response must be calm and controlled.
Try to remove your pet from the situation if it's safe to do so, or remove the trigger. Failing that, calmly try to redirect your dog's attention with a command he normally responds to, or attempt to distract him with a food treat, a favorite toy, a walk or a ride in the car.
Remember, you're only using these diversionary tactics to avert potential disaster. Doing so at every turn will only reinforce the behavior you ultimately hope to extinguish.
All you want to do in the heat of the moment is not make the situation worse. When your dog is highly aroused, upset and reacting with undesirable behavior, it is not the time to attempt to train him.
Punishment Creates More Problems and Solves Nothing
If you find the evidence of a problem behavior after the fact, for example, a puddle on the carpet or a shoe chewed beyond recognition, the only productive thing to do is clean up the mess and vow to avoid the trigger in the future. Ask yourself how your dog was left unsupervised long enough to relieve herself on the floor or destroy footwear, and decide what steps you'll take to avoid the problem next time.
Most importantly, you never want to respond to your dog's undesirable behavior with aggression or punishment. Punishing your dog after the fact for a behavior you didn't see happen can quickly turn her into a sneaky piddler or destroyer of belongings.
Being aggressive and punishing with a dog in a highly aroused, reactive state is a recipe for disaster. This type of response can cause the dog's behavior to escalate, resulting in injury to one or both of you.
Punishing your dog can increase his anxiety, fear and aggressiveness, while making no change in his behavior. It can also sometimes stop only what you see on the outside, without improving your pet's underlying emotional state. Often the result is a problem behavior that appears randomly, giving you no opportunity for trigger avoidance.
With all that said, you also don't want to respond in a comforting way to a problem behavior. Your dog can easily mistake comforting words and touch for praise, which increases the likelihood he'll continue to perform the undesired behavior.
The Goal of Trigger Avoidance and Control
The goal in managing your pet's problem behavior is to keep it from escalating while you work with your dog toward a more permanent solution.
One of the main goals of positive reinforcement behavior therapy is to change the dog's underlying emotional state. Once your pet is no longer aggressively aroused and full of fear, she is open to learning different responses.
If you feel changing your dog's behavior is something you need help with, I recommend a consultation with a certified animal behavior specialist.
There are also some excellent online resources for dog parents who are looking for canine behavior and training tips. A few of my favorites include:
Setting Realistic Expectations
There are certain things your canine companion may never be able to do, and it's important for the bond you share and your pet's well being that you accept what you cannot change.
An under-socialized dog may never handle dog gatherings or strangers well.
Dogs with phobias, especially storm phobias, often never quite conquer their fears.
Aggressive dogs can learn to be less reactive, but often owners of these dogs will need to make lifelong adjustments to insure the safety of both their pet and all who come in contact with him.
Just as every human being is different -- some people love crowds, for example, while others avoid them at all costs -- your dog is an individual and can't be expected to adapt perfectly to every conceivable situation.
Your pet doesn't have to be comfortable no matter the circumstance. If she has problems on walks, at the dog park, riding in the car, or when a neighbor's pet runs through your yard, first avoid the trigger.
Then use positive reinforcement behavior modification to see if she can learn to successfully, consistently respond with new behaviors to old triggers.
Prepare for some successes and some failures. Explore the limits of your dog's tolerance and when you reach them, you'll have a clear understanding of what you can and can't expect of her.