5 common dog behaviour problems

5 common dog behaviour problems

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When you take on a new dog, be they young or old, there are many problems you might encounter. It may seem that you spend your first weeks lying awake as they howl through the night, or that you come home to a scene of carnage. For many dogs and owners, it’s simply a case of biding your time until you know each other well enough to find ways to avoid problems, but in some cases, the dog’s behaviour is so inconsistent with your lifestyle and you may feel so unable to deal with the difficulties that may present, that you feel you have no other option than to surrender them to a shelter.

Right now, I’ve got a little visitor Jack Russell staying with me who is more like Milo in The Mask than a dog I’d want to live with, and there are things that are tolerable and easily rectified (like him having a pee during the night) things that I need to adjust both of our behaviours over (like him running off with my shoe five minutes before I need to go out when I’m already running late) and things that are borderline ‘surrender’ behaviours, (like the way he barks through my lessons on Skype and can’t be left outside on his own) Very quickly, the borderline behaviours can be the ones that become very difficult to manage and can become very costly.

There are many behaviours that are fairly common and easy to resolve. Many are most easily resolved through appropriate exercise. Visitor Jack Russell is recovering from a broken pelvis and broken leg, so he’s on enforced short-exercise bursts. More toys and more exercise would make all his behaviours into tolerable and easily rectified ones, I know. Exercise and entertainment make all the difference to him.

Many modern breeds of dog were not bred to be in a home on their own for eight hours a day. Working dogs, for example, are expected to be active for the kind of time periods that we ourselves work. Many destructive or unwanted behaviours will disappear with a half-hour of obedience routines and a couple of hours of walks every day. Yes, really, that much!

If you’ve got a high energy dog, don’t assume either that getting another one is the solution to your situation, that they will be able to run off their energy. No. All you might be doing is giving your dog another dog to show cool stuff to, like how much fun it is to dig, or play tug with your best towels, or to tear a duvet apart. Many dogs who have a doggie friend with the same energy levels as they have will simply bond with their new friend and become more distant from you, and unless you have the hands to keep up the training, it can be a bit of a nightmare. Of course, it can work fantastically and your dogs may keep each other occupied in those moments when you cannot.

What follows is a list of five common behavioural problems that new dogs often experience, and ways to deal with these. Many of the links come from Dr Ian Dunbar and his website Dog Star Daily, as he talks insightfully and helpfully about aggression, anxiety and youthful doggie behaviours. Gwen Bailey’s website Dog Problems Solved is also a great starting point

Anxiety 

Separation anxiety or hyperattachment disorder can turn you into a virtual recluse if you aren’t careful. If your dog shows signs of distress when you are out, that’s fairly normal: up to 70% of single dogs show signs of distress on their own, and around 40% of dogs who have other doggie companions. Barking, destruction, urination, defecation or even self-mutilation are fairly typical ways that this anxiety manifests itself. You may find other stress responses such as a loss of appetite, panting, pacing or howling. It can happen even before you plan on leaving and stops when you are home. That said, you may notice that they follow you everywhere or feel unhappy when they can’t see you. This is fairly typical among shelter dogs as their anxiety may have been the reason for their abandonment, or it may be a consequence of how they were left.

For those ‘in the house’ moments, just ignore your little shadow. Give them something to occupy themselves, like a Kong or a good-quality chew. Teach them self-calming by rewarding them when they choose to settle. This clip from Kikopup shows ways you can teach calmness. The sound isn’t brilliant but the message is very clear.

There are other things you can do to avoid anxiety in dogs such as minimising all cues that you are going out, crate-training your dog (if they will tolerate it and it does not add to their fear), keeping them in a secure and safe environment and building up their exposure to being alone, from thirty seconds with you in another room with the door open, to three or four hours alone at home over a period of years. Separation anxiety should never be treated by forced separation as there are studies that show that separation anxiety isn’t necessarily related to a hyperattachment disorder i.e. it may not be you that they are missing, but company in general. Instead, work on getting the dog feeling comfortable on their own when people are out of sight rather than ignoring the dog. A happy, reassured dog is less likely to feel anxious. There are many other techniques you can try, such as thundervests and even medication. In all circumstances, seek advice from a dog behaviouralist who understands and has had success with separation anxiety. This article is very helpful in giving a range of straightforward tips to help you with mild anxiety. For my dog with separation anxiety (he’s capable of moving furniture with his teeth and destroying sofa cushions as well as opening doors and gates) the difference was another animal. He is never on his own and the anxiety subsided to a level that was manageable for both of us. I do need to walk my dogs in shifts, but that small adjustment made all the difference. You will also find further information about separation anxiety in this series of articles from Dog Star Daily.

Urinating in the house

Many dogs – and yes, females too – will urinate in the house. For dogs from our refuge, mainly a rural refuge with many hunt dogs and dogs who have lived permanently outside, there can be issues in the first days and weeks. There can be issues for any dog – male or female – if they decide to use their scent as a way to say hello to your curtains. Sterilised, castrated or not, this is something many animals are capable of doing in the first days in your home. This article on house-training should eradicate most issues. It’s important to rule out health issues just as it is important to rule out psychological issues. Some dogs may urinate when over-excited or when feeling stressed. Some dogs may not like to go outside in the dark or in the wet. Toilet training, unless for medical reasons, is usually one of the easiest issues to rectify with a watchful eye and by following guidance. This series of articles from Dr Ian Dunbar may also help you reduce and eliminate this issue.

Biting

Sadly, some dogs have never been taught not to bite. For young puppies, this is a behaviour that is easily eradicated. You may find that some breeds are more “mouthy” than others if they have been bred selectively for their behaviours. That said, those breeds that are more “mouthy” will have not been included in the gene pool if they attacked their human handlers. A terrier that can’t be removed safely from its quarry is not a dog worth breeding from, and cockers that exhibit “cocker rage” will face the same scenario. This being the case, there are still unscrupulous breeders who have thought nothing of breeding from such animals anyway just to make a quick buck. With shelter dogs, the main problem can be that nobody has ever taught them not to bite. In some cases, former owners may have taught them not to growl, which means they go from relatively normal behaviour to a bite without warning. Play-biting is another thing altogether. Sadly, many of the posts on the Internet, when you search for “stop adult dogs biting” encourage you to involve yourself in situations that are more likely to end up in a bite than to end up with calm behaviour!

The hardest thing to do is assess the severity of the bite and the reason for it. The sad fact is that you will only realise your dog has had little bite training until they bite, or that you only realise their bite inhibition is not foolproof under all circumstances. You may realise this  quickly or it may take months. Tilly is a biter. She’s a resource-guarder and will bite if something is taken away from her. Tobby is also a biter. He often “air-snaps” at one of my other dogs and he has bitten me. He has no growl and little warning. He will show his teeth for a second or two and unless whatever provoked the teeth display goes away or backs off, Tobby will then bite. I suspect he was taught not to growl or grumble. I am also under no doubt at all that he would bite the vet if he had the chance.

The first question to ask yourself is what caused the bite. Was it a play-bite or not? In neither of my dogs’ cases has the bite been for play. The second question to ask yourself is ‘Can I reasonably avoid the thing that caused the bite and keep others safe (as well as the dog)?’ For instance, I can reasonably avoid Tilly following toddlers round and snatching the food out of their hands. If I have toddlers here, I can put her in another room or keep the children from eating food around her. I can also reasonably avoid Tobby biting the vet by muzzling him and having assistance when restraining him. When he bit me, he’d become obsessed by a young uncastrated male I had here on foster. It was a form of resource guarding and a form of elevated ritualised harassment, as I came between Tobby and the object of his affections. I’ve had other young uncastrated males here on foster, but it was a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions that was easily resolved by keeping the dogs separate.

For those situations which will occur regularly, such as Tilly and her resource guarding, it’s important to teach good habits at these times. I need to be able to take things from her without risking a bite. Grooming, nail-clipping and medical treatment can also be flashpoints for your dog. For this, you are best to seek the help of an animal behaviouralist and explore desensitisation treatments. Please do not think that someone who trains animals understands why bites happen or how to prevent them. Sadly, where many dogs have been put to sleep as the result of a bite, it was as the result of a misguided ‘expert’. A dog trainer is not necessarily a dog behaviouralist. Neither should you underestimate the role of pain or fear in a reactive bite. This is another reason it is a good idea to seek the advice of a trained animal behaviouralist and a vet.

For play-biting, you have an easier job. This article from the ASPCA gives great advice on reducing and eliminating play-biting. You may also find this article about dog aggression to be very useful.

Aggression towards other dogs or over-exuberant behaviour

Dogs who have not been well-socialised with other dogs may find it hard to adjust to living with others, and this is a common problem experienced. Dogs who have different energy levels can quickly fall out, as can those who are very differently sized or aged. One of the main issues I have with Milo the Mask, Shouty Jack Russell dog, is that he has no idea that other dogs are saying “no, I’ve had enough of playing” or “no, I am an old grump with arthritis and I don’t want to play thanks”. He can’t do “sit” because of the broken pelvis, so we’ve been working on “stay” and “settle” alongside lots of outdoor play, Kongs and chewing. He’s a puppy; it’s normal that he’s got more energy than my old giffers and that’s to me to manage that over-exuberance. Socialising antisocial dogs can be hard but it is not impossible. This guide from Dog Star Daily will help you unpick some aspects of dog fights and spats and be objective about what is happening.

Destructive behaviours and chewing

These behaviours in post-adolescent dogs are often either a result of anxiety, pain or distress, or three other factors: boredom, lack of supervision and not knowing the rules about what’s okay to chew or destroy, and what is not. Most people take that statement personally, as if they are not looking after their dog properly. This isn’t a statement about neglect, though. How many toddlers end up in the emergency room because they’ve put something up their nose, or they’ve fallen over something? We can’t watch them all the time.

This is where toddler stuff comes in really handy. Baby gates, toddler pens and doggie safety reins (an indoor dog lead) are vital when you’re with your dog who is exhibiting these behaviours whilst you’re in the house. Shouty Jack Russell Dog tried to stick his head in the fire yesterday and burning his nose doesn’t seem to be teaching him to stay away from the stove. Our predecessors did a good job in inventing stuff to stop children touching things, getting in to things or ingesting substances they shouldn’t, so dig out your fireguards, your baby playpens and lock up your kitchen cupboards.

The key behaviour that you want to teach when you are supervising is what to do instead of the naughty thing. Replace wires with a Kong and soon they’ll learn that a Kong has nice stuff in it and wires, well, not so much. Teach them that the kitchen is out-of-bounds by rewarding them for settling in their baskets when unsupervised. If you have a puppy, it is easy to crate-train them or keep them in a destruction-proof zone when you can’t supervise them. Exercise, play, obedience training and engaging with you will also mean that when you need to go out and leave them for a little while, they won’t get up to mischief because they are bored and frustrated. Many people go out and leave their dogs at liberty in the home, and then wonder why Fifi has rooted through the dustbin or broken into the biscuit cupboard. A safe place with plenty to occupy them and nothing to destroy when you are out is absolutely perfect. Don’t assume that destruction and chewing are only signs that your dog is unoccupied when alone: it could also be a sign of separation anxiety. The chances are if your dog is new, young or full of energy, that it’s more likely to be just their way of passing time whilst you’re not there. Safe zones, occupation and good teaching about what to chew will erradicate most problems.

Although these five problems may seem relatively minor, they can be deal-breakers for many dogs, ending up with them being passed on to a new family (who may be completely unaware of the dog’s behavioural issues) or with the dog ending up at a shelter. In some scenarios, they can end with the dog being put to sleep, which is why it is vital that if there are persistent problems, you seek the advice of a qualified dog behaviouralist. Don’t feel that you have to tolerate these behaviours and if you have adopted a dog from the Refuge de l’Angoumois, please feel free to contact the staff to ask for support.