Behavior Problems

Dogs can develop a wide range of Behavioral Issues, ranging in intensity from mild and annoying to severe and dangerous... even deadly.  These behaviors can cause damage to property and injury to people and other dogs & animals.  Every day, dogs lose their homes and even their lives due to unresolved Behavior Problems.  You have 2 choices when you take a new dog into your home: do the work to prevent the development or escalation of behavior problems; or do even more work after the fact to address or rehabilitate (and hopefully resolve) existing or evolving behavior problems.  Prevention is relatively easy; behavioral rehabilitation is generally not, and involves far more risk and environmental management. The first Section discusses strategies for the prevention of Behavior Problems, and the second Section covers the basics of Behavior Modification and Rehabilitation. Special dog populations, as related to behavioral issues, are covered in the final Section.

Behavioral Issues: Prevention & Maintenance

A solid Behavior Prevention Program should be put in place whenever any 'new' dog comes into the home, whether as a young puppy or as an adult rescue / shelter / purchased dog.  The Prevention Program should be implemented immediately, or, if the dog appears stressed, after a short period of adjustment so that the dog has a chance to decompress.  Implementing a Prevention Program right away is the best way to avoid the development of behavioral issues- once issues surface or develop, you are no longer solely in prevention mode.

Once the dog has successfully learned the lessons necessary for integration into the human social group (family), a Behavior Maintenance Program should be established and enforced to maintain the desired behaviors.  This is simply good common sense and prudent practice.  

Both Behavior Prevention and Behavior Maintenance Programs consist of 2 separate but complimentary components:

1) Management  and

2) Training including Behavior Modification and Life Skills training.

* Supplementary activities, such as general physical & mental exercise, along with proper and appropriate social interactions, can be included within either or both Programs.

Management refers to strategies designed to prevent the possibility of unwanted behaviors from occurring in the first place, or to mitigate the effects of any existing or developing behavioral/emotional issues.  These strategies include:

Spatial Management:

•  Various forms of physical containment or confinement;

•  Restraint  (usually by way of leash or tether); and

•  Conditioning or training (training can be used to assist in the spatial control of the dog), especially those methods that set limits on spatial freedom, such as PLACE training.

Pharmacological Interventions

•  Prescription Drugs, including hormones 

•  Herbs, Supplements, Naturopathy/Homeopathy 

Training here refers to teaching.  The central goal should be to impart to the dog various valuable and relevant life lessons and skills that will directly impact that dog's ability to live, thrive, and survive in human society.  For puppies (dogs under 4 1/2 months of age), the 50 by 5 Program is the best place to start for teaching young dogs to grow up to be well-behaved adults.  This Program covers the 50 essential behaviors and life skills that all companion dogs should know before they are 5 months old... thus  50 by 5.

These life lessons should be taught in order to broadly address the dog's emotional system and inherent instinctual / genetic tendencies.  Unchecked, these underlying behavioral "drives" are what gets most dogs into trouble.  Training should be aimed at conditioning emotional self-control as well as inhibiting certain instinctual and impulsive drives.  Self-control is the goal, thus NO so-called "obedience" training or verbal cues should be introduced or used initially.   Such attempts to directly communicate to the dog are not advised, as they can actually make some behavior problems worse.

The dog must also learn social rules and boundaries for both dog-dog and dog-human interactions, and these guidelines and expectations should be clearly communicated in an effective and non-verbal manner.  The dog should learn to defer to humans for any and all resources, by default.  Again, this should be taught initially without any verbal or gestural cues/commands.  And finally, the dog should be conditioned and exposed to various environments in such a way that create and establish positive emotional associations with these locations and the elements found within them.

Notice that teaching a dog to SIT or lie DOWN or to shake its PAW is not on the list of training goals.  Well-trained is not equivalent to well-behaved!  None of the target teaching goals are achieved through the use of Obedience training-- in fact most behavior work is done without the use of Obedience commands/cues.  Obedience training alone is quite ineffective when used to either prevent or resolve many types of behavioral issues.  [Notice that I said prevent and resolve the issues, not merely control the dog's (physical) actions.  Also note that I also said Obedience training alone is often ineffective--  Obedience training may indeed be an important component of a behavior modification, rehabilitation, or similar training program in certain instances, but one should never rely solely on obedience training for either the prevention or resolution of behavior problems.]

 

There are many many potential and significant problems with the use of Obedience training / Obedience cues when they are applied to address behavior problems-- sometimes Obedience training alone will often have little effect on the problem behavior itself;  sometimes it will appear to work within a specific context or situation; and sometimes Obedience work will actually make the situation or the behavior problem worse.  And this is true regardless of the approach, techniques, or methodology that one chooses to utilize when teaching the obedience cues / commands.  

 

The idea of not using Obedience training to create a well-behaved dog may sound counter-intuitive at first, especially since the word 'Obedience' itself would imply or indicate control over the dog.  Indeed this idea may run counter to what you have heard, read, been taught, or currently believe... but it is nonetheless true.  To a dog, Obedience training is nothing more than learning a 'cue : action' association-- a discriminative stimulus of sorts.  That is, a (verbal) cue indicates the opportunity to possibly gain or maintain something the dog likes, or escape from or avoid something that the dog doesn't by performing a particular physical action or sequence of actions.  For instance, a dog may learn that a certain verbal cue means to put its rear-end on the floor, or its elbows on the ground, when it hears the sound SIT or DOWN, respectively.  These are merely physical actions-- performance measures that demonstrate the dog knows how to place its ass or elbows on the floor.  You can certainly elect to teach your dog such cues, and utilize whatever methods of enforcement you like, but this likely will not change the dog's emotional mind, or how it feels, about a particular environmental situation when you use those Obedience cues to control that dog's actions in that situation.  In addition, the dog may not 'behave' appropriately when not on cue or on command, or the dog may behave very differently when no one is around to tell the dog what to do (or what not to do) via Obedience commands.

 

I have yet to see or meet a dog that has been relinquished, returned, or euthanized because it would not SIT or DOWN on cue.  Rather, dogs lose their homes, and frequently their lives as well, because they cannot control their emotional and instinctual impulses.  Dogs destroy, they bite, and they kill.  Ensuring that a dog knows how to SIT or DOWN on cue for food in your kitchen or living room is just irrelevant-- it's not all about assess and elbows.  

 
Behavioral Issues:
Modification & Rehabilitation

If Behavioral Issues already exist when you take in a dog, or if behavioral issues develop and evolve once the dog has been with you, then you must take immediate steps to first manage the problem, and then directly address the problem.  A Behavior Modification Program is structurally similar to the framework for Behavior Prevention and Maintenance Programs described above-- you take control of the environment and the dog's access to resources (Spatial and Resource Management), and then you begin training and behavior modification work.   The difference is in the work required-- the work for behavior modification and rehabilitation (the training) is more involved; it is often riskier; it sometimes requires special techniques, procedures, & equipment; and it almost always requires more time, energy, and effort.  Supplementary activities and approaches, such as exercise and/or the use of drugs/medications, may be a necessary component of a Behavior Modification Program.

 

While some behavioral issues will subside and go away on their own, others will not.  In fact, some behavioral issues will only get worse with without effective intervention.  At the very least, manage the situation in order to minimize the possibility or eliminate the occurrence of the unwanted behavior(s).  This should be done to insure the safety of the dog as well as other people/animals/property.  Your Management strategy should not cause the development of new behavioral problems, nor should it exacerbate existing ones. 

As mentioned, Rehabilitation efforts can be riskier, depending on the type and severity of the problem and the physical size/power of the dog in question.  This site will provide information and demonstrations of various techniques for dealing with problem behaviors.  Seek professional assistance immediately if you believe that your dog might bite or cause harm to you, itself, or other people / animals.  Always use good common sense.

 
Dog Behavior: Specific Populations
 
Puppy Dogs

Everyone loves a puppy... until about 2 or 3 months later.  All puppies are cute, but only some are easy.  Puppies not only have a unique set of behavioral challenges that owners must deal with, but the approaches and techniques utilized for dealing with these behaviors must be appropriate for the puppy's age and skill level, as well as account for their current emotional, cognitive, & developmental stage.  Expectations must be adjusted, and patience must be practiced in order for both owner and puppy to survive this early stage.

 

Spatial Management is an essential component of any puppy-rearing program, with various forms of containment / confinement being the primary strategy for management. Puppies can also be tethered on leash when supervised, and should be conditioned to stay on a bed or raised cot for short periods of time, as soon as it is practical.  Too much freedom = unwanted behaviors that then become ingrained habits. Habits can be difficult to undo (for dogs and for humans!). With puppies, you must be proactive in your management efforts and in your training endeavors.

Puppies have issues that are quite unique to them, at least in general.  Owners must learn to deal with: "Puppy biting" and mouthing; Exploratory chewing and destructive behaviors; House-training issues; over-exuberance and lack of impulse control...

In addition, owners must be prepared to supervise and guide a puppy's first exposures to specific environments, to new and unfamiliar people, to new and unfamiliar dogs, to handling, grooming, & inspection procedures, etc, etc.  All of these initial exposures can have a profound and lasting effect on the dog's perception of the world and how to behave in it.

 
 
Dogs in Shelters and Rescues

 

Every year, there are literally millions of dogs kept in shelters and within rescue organizations in this country. Even with the best of intentions, these dogs are often under-exercised, over-stimulated, frustrated, and isolated / confined for far too many days.  Behavior problems are inevitable-- new behavioral issues surface, while existing behavior problems are either inhibited or exacerbated.  Many do not make it out alive.

On a grand scale, the very best overall action that can be taken is to get these dogs out of the stressful and stagnant environments where they are housed.  "Kennel Enrichment" efforts do little good if the dog remains mentally and psychologically distressed while kept isolated in the same stressor-filled location. To get dogs out of their kennels and crates frequently enough requires a strong, functional Volunteer / Foster Program.  

One of the more insidious stressors in shelters, besides the noise, odors, inadequate living space, and lack of regular exercise, is the absence of unobstructed access to humans. Not access to other dogs interestingly enough, but access to humans!  And not even interaction with them, simply unblocked visual access and close proximity--  the ability to be present within the social and personal space of a human-being without an intervening physical barrier.  Addressing this issue alone can have an immediate and tremendous impact on a dog's mental state and well-being while it remains within the system.

 

Behaviorally, shelter and rescue dogs have it rough.  They tend to lose many of the skills that they may have had before coming into the system.  They often lose their house-training skills; they may lose their social-interactive skills; they may lose their impulse and emotional self-control.  

They may also acquire unwanted responses to people and other dogs, including aggression, emotional reactivity, and hyper-activity.  They can develop stereotypies and compulsive behaviors, including incessant barking, whining, chewing, coprophagia,  jumping, spinning, and pacing.  They learn to pull on the leash and ignore the direction and guidance of humans, due to the stress of the environment, the frustration of prolonged confinement, and from the day to day routine of being shuffled from one location to the next.  As their behavior and skill set declines, so do their chances for a successful adoption.

Dogs with Owners

Dogs don't have real problems until they find themselves an owner.  Of course this statement is meant to be humorous, but more often than not, it is also true.  Many common and serious behavioral issues do not emerge or develop until after a dog has become bonded to or associated with a specific human within a particular environment.  Owner-guarding, owner-directed aggression, certain forms of territorial aggression & spatial-possessiveness, dog-dog aggression & reactivity, jealousy & in-fighting issues, owner-absent destructive behaviors, general anxiety, and separation distress/anxiety are all examples of potentially owner-created behavior problems. 

As an aside, this is one of the (many) reasons that so-called 'temperament tests' conducted in shelter environments are such poor predictors of post-adoption behavior-- many manifest behaviors exist only as relationship or interactive dynamics between an individual and other individuals & environments !

Dogs may or may not readily exhibit behavior problems when they first come into a new home, but without proper guidance, they likely will develop or acquire one or more of them in a short time.  Existing behavior problems can quickly worsen.  

   

Behaviors related to aggression can evolve from lack of leadership, supervision, establishment of behavioral limits & boundaries, etc.  The often quoted mantra that "aggression begets aggression" is rarely the reason for companion dog aggression.  On the contrary, owner emotional weakness, passivity, over-indulgence, and ultimately fear of the dog often invite and cultivate aggression.  

All new dogs coming into the home should made aware of the 'house rules' immediately, including the behavioral requirements for acquiring any desired resource.  The dog must see the owner as vital to it's survival, and choose to cooperate with humans for its own self-benefit.  This does not usually require any sort of physical means to establish a respect-based relationship, just good planning.  Otherwise, owners will be unable to control their dog's emotional and instinctual responses in real-world situations.

 
 
Special Cases

 

Some dogs will come into your world with more baggage than others, either due to genetics, environmental circumstance, or history, or some combination of these factors.  Such dogs often exhibit behaviors and behavioral responses that are undesirable and unsatisfactory, and may do so in extreme ways.  These dogs may or may not spontaneously recover or improve over time, and many will need interventions aimed at training, counter-conditioning, and/or rehabilitation of the unwanted behaviors.  

   
Dogs from extraordinary circumstances

Unfortunately, abuse and severe neglect are a reality for many dogs. Extreme fear and aggressive responses are common problems with these dogs.  Such dogs may need professional help in order to recover as fully as is possible.  Love and kindness alone won't fix many serious behavior problems, and in some cases, will actually make them worse.

 
Inherently Difficult Dogs 

Other dogs come into the world 

with challenging behavioral tendencies and traits already genetically wired-in.  Some dogs are 'hard' in personality or temperament; others may be fearful; some aggressive; some insecure, anxious, nervous, or needy.  Again, professional help and methods beyond standard dog training may be required to help these dogs reach their full potential.

Other common Behavioral Challenges that owners and handlers may encounter with their dogs from any circumstance or of any size, breed, sex, or temperament include:

• Prey Drive Issues

• Food / Bone Guarding

Toy / Object Guarding

• Owner-guarding Issues

• Pulling on Leash

• Leash Reactivity

• Aggression

• Touch / Handling / Grooming Issues

• Crating / Confinement Issues

• Separation Distress & Anxiety

• Obsessive / OCD Behaviors

• General Anxiety-related Issues

Unruliness / Non-Compliance

• Hyper-activity & Attention Problems

Excessive Barking

Digging

Destruction of Property

Marking / Urination indoors

• Fear & Panic-related Issues

• Territorial (Guarding) Behaviors

• Possessiveness / Jealousy Problems

• Social Dynamics / Rank-related Problems

Some of these issues may represent minor inconveniences for canine owners & guardians, while others are certainly more serious, or can become more serious without proper intervention.  Many of these problems are actually preventable, so it is wise to learn how best to bring a new dog into your home or into your rescue.  Don't wait for problems to arise.  Otherwise, your dog's stay with you may be very short

(if you are an owner) or very long (if you are a rescue or shelter).

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