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Problem Solving: Addressing Specific Behavioral Issues in Dogs

Problem Solving: Addressing Specific Behavioral Issues in Dogs

Dogs exhibit a wide range of behaviors, some of which their owners may find problematic or undesirable. Addressing these behavioral issues in a constructive manner requires understanding the potential causes, being able to properly identify the problem behavior, and having strategies to modify the behavior through training, management, and environment adjustment. This article will provide an overview of common behavioral issues in dogs, discuss the importance of determining the underlying motivation, and suggest positive solutions tailored to specific problems. The goal is to give dog owners insight into effectively solving common dog behavior problems.

Common Problematic Behaviors in Dogs

Some of the most prevalent problematic behaviors in dogs include:

  • Aggression – This includes aggression towards people or other animals. It can be motivated by fear, dominance, possessiveness over resources, pain-induced irritability, maternal protection, or prey drive.

  • Anxiety and phobias – Dogs may exhibit anxiety when left alone, around strangers, or in response to noises, objects or places. Common phobias are related to loud noises like thunder or fireworks.

  • Excessive barking – Barking frequently or for long durations. Barking when left alone or in response to stimuli like noises or people passing by.

  • Destructiveness – Chewing/scratching furniture, doors, walls, or possessions. Usually indicates stress, anxiety, or insufficient exercise.

  • House soiling – Urinating or defecating in inappropriate places indoors when previously house trained. May indicate a medical issue, anxiety, incomplete training, or inadequate access to potty areas.

  • Digging – Digging in the yard, sometimes to escape or find comfort.

  • Jumping – Jumping on people in an attempt to gain attention, during play, or when excited.

  • Pulling on leash – Lunging forward or pulling strongly on the leash when walking.

  • Chasing – Chasing cars, squirrels, children on bikes, etc. Related to predatory drive.

  • Unruly behavior – Ignoring commands, constantly seeking attention, hyperactivity, or other impulsive behaviors.

Determining the Motivation Behind the Behavior

To properly address a problematic dog behavior, the underlying motivation must be recognized. Potential reasons dogs display inappropriate behaviors include:

  • Lack of sufficient physical and mental exercise
  • Stress, anxiety or fear
  • Medical conditions like gastrointestinal issues or arthritis
  • Improper or incomplete training
  • Attention-seeking
  • Natural instincts like herding, chasing prey, resource guarding, etc.
  • Learned behaviors that have been inadvertently reinforced
  • Changes to routine, environment or household triggering insecurity
  • Lack of appropriate outlets for natural dog behaviors

The first step is always a veterinary exam to identify any medical factors. Then observations should be made around when and in what contexts the behavior occurs. Keeping a journal can help detect patterns. Consulting an experienced dog trainer or behaviorist provides an objective outside perspective. Once the motivation is properly identified, a plan can be made to modify the behavior.

Training and Behavior Modification Techniques

Below are some positive techniques commonly used to correct problematic dog behaviors:

  • Reinforcement – Rewarding desired behaviors and ignoring unwanted behaviors. Provide praise, treats, toys, play etc. when the dog displays actions you want to increase.

  • Desensitization – Gradually exposing the dog to a fear-inducing stimulus at a low enough level that it does not elicit a reaction. Slowly raise the intensity as the dog adapts to change their emotional response. This is effective for anxieties, reactivity and phobias.

  • Counterconditioning – Teaching the dog to perform a positive behavior in response to a trigger instead of an unwanted behavior. Often combined with desensitization. For example, teach a dog to sit to greet people rather than jump on them.

  • Obedience training – Teaching commands like "sit", "off", "quiet", "leave it", etc. to gain control over the dog's actions and snap them out of undesirable behaviors. Makes it possible to redirect.

  • Exercise – Providing adequate physical and mental stimulation. A tired dog is less likely to be rambunctious, destructive, or engage in unwanted chasing, nipping or rough play.

  • Environmental management – Adjusting the dog's environment through baby gates, crate training, removing access to triggers, etc. to avoid opportunities for the problem behavior.

  • Implementing a schedule – Feeding, walking and training the dog at consistent times to create predictability and minimize anxiety.

  • Distraction – Getting the dog's focus on a toy, treat or alternate activity to interrupt unwanted behavior.

  • Negative punishment – Withdrawing something the dog wants when they engage in an undesirable behavior, such as attention, play, access to yard, etc.

  • Positive punishment – Adding an unpleasant consequence when unwanted behavior occurs, such as a leash correction, loud noise, unpleasant taste deterrent spray, etc. This risks unintended fallout like increased anxiety or aggression, so only to be used in very specific contexts, and never with aggression.

Solutions for Common Problem Behaviors

Now we will explore targeted solutions for some of the most prevalent behavior issues dog owners encounter:

Destructiveness

Destructive behavior like chewing, digging and scratching usually arises from stress, inadequate exercise, or gaining attention. Solutions include:

  • Providing interactive toys and plenty of physical exercise and mental stimulation. Food puzzles and Kongs with frozen wet food or peanut butter challenge dogs.

  • Restricting access to vulnerable items using baby gates or crates when unsupervised. Leave appropriate chew toys available instead.

  • Managing stress and anxiety with pheromone diffusers and calming supplements. Create a predictable routine.

  • Ignoring destructive behavior and rewarding calm behavior with attention and play. Teach "leave it" and redirect with commands like "sit" or "go to your mat".

Barking

Solutions for excessive or nuisance barking depend on the reason. Recommendations include:

  • If barking at passersby, close curtains/blinds to block the view and train "quiet". Reward silence.

  • Barking when alone can be alleviated via exercise, enrichment, training, pheromones and addressing separation anxiety.

  • For demand barking for attention, ignore until quiet. Reward calm behavior.

  • Install an anti-bark collar as a last resort for habitual barking. Use vibration or citronella spray, not shock.

Jumping

To curb jumping on people:

  • Teach the dog to sit politely for attention. Use treats and praise. If they jump, turn away and ignore.

  • Instruct guests to avoid eye contact and touch until the dog is calm. Reward calm behavior, not excited jumping.

  • Use baby gates to prevent access to guests until the dog is under control.

  • Keep a leash on the dog when visitors arrive so you can guide them into a sit if needed.

  • For extreme jumpers, consider having the dog wear a front-clip harness to turn them around if they start to jump.

Pulling on Leash

To stop leash pulling:

  • Use force-free training aids like head halters and front-clip harnesses to discourage pulling and make it ineffective.

  • Stop moving if they pull, reward when leash is loose. Or change direction and reward for following. Be consistent.

  • Practice loose leash walking and commands like "heel". Use high-value treats to motivate. Frequently reinforce not pulling.

  • Avoid flexi leashes. Use a fixed 4-6 foot leash so you have better control.

  • Consider attaching the leash to a rear-clip harness instead of a collar until leash manners improve. This curbs damage to the throat from pulling.

Anxiety and Phobias

For anxiety or phobia-related behaviors:

  • Create a safe space for the dog like a crate or corner of a room with blankets. Place them there during stressful events.

  • Mask frightening sounds with white noise.

  • Use an Anxiety Wrap or Thundershirt to apply gentle pressure.

  • Diffuse calming pheromones and give natural supplements like melatonin or CBD.

  • Exercise before stressful events to dispel nervous energy.

  • Use desensitization and counterconditioning to change emotional response.

  • If reactivity is involved, create distance from the trigger and use treats and commands to refocus their attention.

Aggression

For aggression cases, safety is paramount. Recommendations include:

  • Consult a veterinary behaviorist. Medications may help in conjunction with training.

  • Identify and avoid triggers/contexts that lead to aggression. Prevent rehearsal of the behavior.

  • Desensitize and countercondition using treats, toys and praise to shift response to triggers.

  • Obedience train and address impulsiveness. Build stimulus control. Use commands like "leave it" and "watch me".

  • Safety equipment like basket muzzles may be needed for socialization and training around triggers.

  • Physical punishment will make aggression worse. Only use safe, humane methods.

  • As a last resort, speak to a behaviorist about a permanent management plan or rehoming if the owner's safety is at risk.

Seeking Professional Help

For more serious, complex or dangerous cases, seek help from a professional dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist. They can provide experience-based guidance tailored to your individual situation. Some signs that professional assistance may be warranted include:

  • Aggression that is increasing in frequency or intensity. This presents a safety risk.

  • Destructiveness that is escalating despite efforts to manage it.

  • Anxiety, phobias or separation distress that severely impact quality of life.

  • A behavior that begins suddenly in an adult dog. This could indicate a medical issue.

  • A behavior that you have difficulty identifying the motivation behind.

  • A situation where training attempts have been unsuccessful and the problem persists or worsens.

  • A behavior that threatens the viability of the owner-pet relationship.

Preventing Behavior Problems

While solving existing behavioral issues is important, prevention is ideal. Here are some tips to help avoid them:

  • Pick the right dog for your lifestyle and experience level. High energy, independent or headstrong breeds are harder for novices.

  • Socialize puppies extensively to a wide range of people, animals, places, sights and sounds. Continue into adulthood.

  • Address emerging problematic behaviors immediately to prevent worsening. Early intervention increases success.

  • Make sure dogs receive sufficient exercise, mental enrichment and quality time with their family. Meet their needs.

  • Train using positive reinforcement. Set dogs up to succeed and reward desirable responses. Avoid punishment.

  • Consult trainers/behaviorists at the first sign of trouble to get expert guidance tailored to your dog. Knowledge is power.

  • Take steps to minimize situations that create stress, anxiety, fear or over-excitement. Know your dog's triggers.

  • Commit to patience and consistency when making behavior modifications. Change takes time and persistence.

Conclusion

Modifying ingrained dog behaviors takes diligence, but doing so enables owners to keep their dogs in the home versus surrendering them. Each situation is unique, so identifying the root cause of the unwanted behavior and then following a customized behavior modification approach is key. With knowledge of dog behavior, plenty of patience and positive reinforcement methods focused on setting dogs up for success, the majority of common behavior problems are resolvable. In more extreme cases, seeking professional help provides the expertise and objective perspective needed to overcome stubborn issues. With care, compassion and dedication from pet owners, even difficult behavioral conditions can often be managed or overcome, resulting in improved quality of life for both the dog and owner.

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