Behavior Training in Canines
As a general practitioner with a special interest in behavior, I spend a lot of time talking with my clients about the annoying things their pets do. We all love our pets, but having some conflict is inevitable – we are, after all, different species! Fortunately, most behavior “problems” can be solved through management (preventing the behavior in the first place), training (teaching a different behavior or emotional response), or just by learning about normal dog and cat behavior – some behaviors that seem like problems, really aren’t!
Here are the most common behavior concerns we hear about from our dog-owning clients. Stay tuned for a feline version, coming soon!
- Help! My arms are a pincushion from my puppy biting me! What do I do? We’ve all been there! The key to this one is understanding why puppies bite: it’s part of normal puppy play! Every time they get you with those needle-sharp teeth, it’s because they are playing with you, or they want you to play with them. This actually makes the solution to the problem straightforward: if all play and attention ends the second they bite hard, every single time, puppy will learn to control those shark teeth so that you’ll stick around and play. This won’t be an overnight change, mind you. Plan on repeating the “you bite → I leave” scenario 20-30 times a day. If you are consistent, your puppy will be super well mannered. If you cheat, he will, too ;).
- My dog is terrified of fireworks. Noise phobias can be very upsetting for you and your pet. Building positive associations with loud noises can help with this, but the mainstay of treatment is medication. There are several options, so if you have tried medications without success in the past, don’t give up! Call us for an appointment. In the meantime, it’s ok to comfort your dog during noisy events. It can also help to create a hide-out for your dog: a dark room or crate covered with blankets with a white noise machine or radio to minimize the impact of the scary noises.
- My dog humps my kids and/or other dogs. This one can be embarrassing, but the good news is, there are no ulterior motives here. Humping is just part of normal dog play. The other parts are pretend fighting and pretend hunting. We humans just tend to find humping a little more disturbing than the rest of it. Time-outs (gently interrupting and leading your dog to another room away from the action for 10-15 minutes) can work great for reducing humping, as can redirecting to more acceptable play such as fetching or doing tricks.
- My dog pulls on the leash. He’s going to pull my arm out of its socket! For all dogs who pull on a leash, I recommend a front-clip harness, such as the Freedom Harness, Easy Walk, or Sensation Harness. These can help reduce pulling without the nasty side-effects that can come with choke, pinch, or even shock collars (What’s so wrong with those collars, you ask? Click here for a blog reviewing the risks of using punishment-based training methods). Rewarding your dog with treats for staying close to you can help as well. Ask us if you need a referral to a qualified trainer.
- Whenever my dog is on a walk and sees another dog, he goes crazy! I can barely control him and I’m scared he’s going to kill another dog! It can be so stressful to walk a dog who lunges and barks at other dogs. But there is help! First, we need to determine if your dog is actually aggressive (usually due to fear), or if the aggression is rooted in frustration at not being able to go say hi because of the leash. If your dog has a history of playing well with other dogs when off leash, he’s most likely in the frustrated category. If he never wants to hang out with other dogs, or is snarky no matter the context, then we are likely dealing with dog-dog aggression. The good news is that we can treat both. Medications may be recommended depending on the root cause, followed by work with a qualified trainer. The Academy for Dog Trainers has a great blog summarizing this problem.
- My dog is aggressive to anyone who comes over to my house. Human-directed aggression in dogs can be a very scary thing. Dogs can do serious damage! By far the most common cause for stranger-directed aggression is fear, which can be related to genetic make-up as well as early socialization. Dogs who act aggressively are trying to increase the distance between themselves and the person they are afraid of. The scary display is intended to make the person back away, and it usually works!The news here is mixed. No, we likely can’t make your dog into a super-social butterfly. But it is possible to help him feel more comfortable by working to change his emotional response to strangers. We strongly recommend working with a qualified trainer on these cases. Some of these dogs will also benefit from anti-anxiety medications, so schedule an appointment with us to discuss meds and to get a referral for training.
- My dog growls at me when I try to trim his nails. Nail trims are notoriously difficult for many dog owners. It’s no fun for you or your dog! It is important to recognize that your dog isn’t just being difficult, he is trying to let you know that he isn’t comfortable with what is happening. As with any other fear or anxiety, the right kind of training can make a big difference. The first step with this is to hold off on nail trims at home for now, and schedule an appointment with us to discuss the possible use of in-hospital sedation if the nails are uncomfortably long. Then, we strongly recommend following the Nailed It! course to slowly help your dog (and yourself) learn to love nail trim time. Call us for a special BLACC discount code for the course!
- My dog growls at me when I take his bone away. Resource guarding is a very common complaint, and can involve toys, food, sleeping spots, or even favorite people. Thankfully it is one of the more easily treated problems when addressed correctly. The first step is to avoid the situation until you can get help – give Fido his bone in a closed crate or room, and don’t try to take it away. We can assess if medications would help, and give you a referral for a qualified trainer to walk you through the process of helping your dog feel better about having things taken away. For a more detailed description of the problem and the solution, please see our article on Resource guarding here.
- I can’t leave my dog alone – he barks and chews up the doors or his crate. Separation Anxiety can be devastating for both you and your dog. The signs include defecating or urinating, destroying furniture, walls, doors, or crates, hurting themselves during destructive episodes (torn nails or broken teeth), prolonged periods of barking or howling, and not eating even favorite treats when left alone. In dogs with separation anxiety, all of these behaviors are rooted in panic – he is not trying to be naughty or spiteful, he’s terrified.Because of this extreme panic, separation anxiety is one of the behavior disorders for which medication is almost always recommended in addition to slow and careful training to help the dog feel relaxed during absences. If you suspect your dog is suffering from this difficult disorder, please make an appointment with us right away so we can get you started on the road to recovery with a complete medical evaluation, medication recommendations, and a referral to a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer.
- My dog barks so much! It’s driving me nuts and my neighbors are complaining! Barking is normal dog behavior! But of course it can be very annoying. Barking generally falls into one of four categories, which differ quite a bit from each other. The overarching similarity is this: your dog isn’t trying to be naughty, he’s trying to communicate something!
- A watchdog barker is doing what many of us expect our dogs to do – alerting us to the presence of potential intruders.
- A demand barker is trying to get you to do something, such as take him out, feed him, or just give him attention.
- A spooky barker is feeling anxious about something in the environment and is generally barking to make that thing go away.
- A boredom or sport barker is indirectly letting you know that he needs more mental and/or physical stimulation – he’s barking to entertain himself.
As you may guess, the “cure” to each of these types of barking is different, because the underlying cause is different. A watchdog barker can be taught alternative, less ear-piercing behaviors for when the doorbell rings, like going to his crate. A demand barker can be taught alternative ways to seek attention. The spooky barker may need confidence-building, and if the fear is severe, medications may help. The boredom barker needs enrichment – exercise, an expanded social life, and increased mental stimulation (try food toys!). I do not generally recommend bark collars of any type, as these do not address the underlying cause of the barking. In addition, they can have lots of nasty side-effects, including increased anxiety and even aggression.
- My dog eats his poop! Poop-eating, or copraphagia, is perhaps one of the most disgusting things dogs love to do. They may eat their own feces or the feces of other dogs or species (kitty poop is a favorite). There are lots of theories as to why dogs do this, but a recent study showed that it’s probably just normal behavior and in most cases doesn’t indicate any underlying medical issue. There are many products on the market that can be added to the food to make the feces distasteful, but for the most part, dogs go right back to snacking once the additive is stopped. Therefore, the best treatment here is the simplest – clean up the poop in the yard, and prevent access to kitty’s litter box.
- My dog pees in the house. Nobody likes cleaning up pee and poop. If your dog was previously perfect in the potty department but suddenly starts having accidents, schedule an appointment with us to evaluate him for medical issues first. If your dog has never been 100% reliable, chances are he just needs a little more consistency with the standard potty training plan to get him on track. Your dog isn’t trying to punish you , he just needs to go and hasn’t quite learned to hold it yet! Check out our article on potty training here. There is also great webinar on potty training at Housetraining123.com. If you are getting stuck, schedule an appointment with us to rule out any underlying medical issues. If everything checks out but you need some one-on-one help with the training, we can give you a referral to a qualified trainer.
Rachel Szumel, DVM