Tips for Solving Common Behavior Problems
Sometimes dogs can suddenly exhibit bad behaviors—even dogs who are otherwise on their best behavior. Since dogs have no sense of morality, they don't do something because it's "wrong" or "right." They just do whatever works. For example, if you see your dog chewing on a chair leg and give him a cookie to distract him from the furniture, you have taught him that the next time he wants a cookie, all he has to do is chew on the chair leg.
When a dog has nothing else to do, he might try chewing or digging. You can be held somewhat responsible for this, as you should be providing your dog with daily exercise and entertainment. In addition to making sure your dog has enough daily activity, you can recognize when and why a dog is prone to a particular problem behavior, and then take steps to help him overcome it.
Correct the Behavior
When your dog begins to exhibit a problem behavior, try to work on correcting it right away. The longer you let it go on, the harder it will be to correct it. Some problem behaviors get to the point where they are almost impossible for the average owner to handle. If you think your dog may need the kind of help that you can't give him, don't hesitate to seek the help of a professional trainer.
Aggression isn’t always a full-out attack. Usually it’s more subtle—but equally dangerous—behavior. Does your dog bare his teeth at you when you reach for his collar to get him off the furniture? Does he stand over and guard his food bowl or special toys? Is walking him difficult because you can’t trust him to greet other dogs nicely? These are all manifestations of aggressive tendencies that will probably lead to a bite incident someday. If you notice anything like this, take immediate action. What to do? Certainly setting limits, rewarding only positive behavior, not responding emotionally, and evaluating diet are things you should implement around your home right away. Of course, reinforcing limits with an aggressive dog can cause the aggression to escalate. There’s basically no way around it: Because of the potential for serious harm, it’s critical to begin working with a professional. Pick up the phone or go online right now and call 1-800-PET-DOGS or go to www.apdt.com. This is the contact information for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, a national organization of certified, reward-oriented dog trainers and behaviorists. Finding someone in your area is the first step; if that person isn’t qualified, they should certainly try to refer you to someone who is.
Barking or Whining
The first thing to remember about barking is that it’s natural and, for many dogs, it’s quite enjoyable. For your part, when barking or whining aggravates you, try really hard not to “bark” or whine back—which you’re doing if you yell at or plead with your dog while he’s vocalizing in this way. The message he gets from you “barking back” is that maybe he should be louder, or maybe he should repeat himself so that you stop. Instead, teach him to bark on command using the words “speak” or “bark,” and to be quiet on command using the words “shush” or “quiet.” It’s usually easier to teach “speak” first, while your dog is actually barking. Simply encourage him by saying “Good speak.” Feeding him will necessitate that he stop barking to chew and swallow. When he is finally quiet, say “Good shush,” and reward him again.
This is a bad habit that is easier to prevent than to cure, so from the very beginning, when it’s time for you to eat, put your dog in his crate or confine him in a room with an engaging chew toy to occupy him. Only let him out when you’re finished. If you want to feed him leftovers, put them in his food bowl and incorporate them into regular meals. If you have a beggar, start crating or confining him. Steel yourself and your family to suffer through the barking and whining for as long as it takes. Only release him from the confinement when he is quiet.
All dogs need to chew. Accept this fact, and take on the responsibility of providing your dog with safe, acceptable chew toys such as a Nylabone® toy. If he’s chewing stuff around the house, don’t let him loose in the house. Crating or confining him with the chews and toys you’ve selected will leave him with little choice but to satisfy his needs with those. If he simply won’t take to something you think is safe and acceptable, keep trying until you find something he likes.
If you have a dog who loves to dig—and again, digging is a natural canine instinct and can’t be shut down—don’t fight him, join him. Select a spot in your yard or on your walk where he won’t do too much damage if he digs. Encourage him to use that spot by burying something there that he needs to dig out. Praise him when he does. Set up a small sandbox in your yard where your dog can dig. If he’s digging in an unacceptable spot, it’s because you’re not supervising him or directing him to an acceptable spot. The same is true for “digging” indoors. If your dog is scratching at the floor, he’s probably anxious or bored. Put him someplace safe (confined), and give him toys and chews to play with. Or take him outside for a walk and direct him to his digging spot.
Your dog can’t jump up on someone if he’s sitting down, lying down, or otherwise confined. Enlist a friend or neighbor, as well as other family members, to help redirect this behavior. Put your dog on his leash, have someone ring the doorbell, approach with your dog, and ask the dog to sit. He sits, you open the door. He doesn’t sit, you wait until he does. When the person comes in, give them a couple of treats and have them ask the dog to sit. He sits, he gets a treat. He doesn’t sit, they turn their back on him for a moment. You make sure he doesn’t jump up by holding his leash. Ask him to sit first, and be sure he does. Then the person should turn around and ask him to sit, too. Repeat until the dog complies. This is something you’ll need to do over and over again until your dog can control himself. Even if you confine him when you’re expecting guests, eventually you’ll want to include him in the gathering, in which case he’ll need to know how to properly greet the guests—by sitting and being rewarded for it. If your puppy begins to jump on you, turn your back and ignore him. Praise him and give him a treat when all four paws are on the ground. When you have visitors, make sure your puppy is on a leash before you open the door. This will enable you to control his behavior.
Playing Too Roughly
It’s critical that rough play be settled and stopped immediately. To settle your dog when he’s playing this way with you, stop moving or making sounds. Stand up if you’re on the floor. Keep your hands and arms close to your body. Be a statue if possible, even if the dog is jumping up on you. If he is playing with others this way, have them stop moving and get up slowly, paying no attention to the dog. When he has settled enough to physically handle him without re-exciting him, pick him up or lead him to his crate or room of confinement. Give a long time-out for this offense. Play should only be allowed if it’s managed. As soon as anyone gets overexcited, calm it down and stop it. Do some training with him when he’s settled down, too, to reinforce that you’re his leader.
This is the term used by some veterinarians and trainers to refer to dogs who go crazy when left alone, attempting to destroy their surroundings, barking and crying uncontrollably, and otherwise causing havoc.
To combat this reaction, acclimate your dog to your comings and goings by starting small and making the experience a positive one. Without making a big fuss over it, decide to leave the house. Put your dog in his crate or a confinement room with a favorite chew toy, turn the radio on to a classical or soft rock station (something soothing) and, without saying another word, pick up your coat, bag, and car keys and leave the house. Walk around the house quietly, listening to or spying on your dog without him knowing. Give him a couple of minutes, depending on whether he gets upset when you leave or not. If he does get upset, allow him some time to settle down. (A really appealing chew toy given on your way out should be enough; if it’s not, find something more appealing.) If he doesn’t get upset but settles right in with the chew toy, give a silent cheer.
When he’s quiet and you’ve been out more than five minutes, come back in as if nothing has happened, put your things down, and quietly and calmly greet your dog. Do not run to him and smother him with kisses. Put on his leash and bring him outside, just as you would if you were returning from a longer trip. Let him learn that you come home and take care of his needs. Do this a few times a day in the first days and weeks, increasing the amount of time you are gone from the house. Stack the odds in your favor by making sure your dog has something worth playing with, that the radio is loud enough but not too loud, that sufficient light and heat is available, and that you have made sure he’s comfortable and safe. If you’re confining him to a single room, be careful about leaving anything around that could make an engaging but unacceptable chew “toy.”
If you feel that you’ve tried your best and the situation is not much better, consult a professional before you become completely exasperated. Consider working with a dog trainer and your veterinarian. Your dog may need a medication that could help with his nerves while training him to handle things better.
Stealing Food, Clothing, or Other Objects
Fortunately, stealing is a fairly easy problem to solve because your dog can’t steal what he can’t get to. Unfortunately, that means the onus is really on you. You must be perpetually on the lookout for what could be considered fair game: accessible garbage cans, food left anywhere within reach, open closet doors, etc. Make the inappropriate objects of his desire inaccessible while at the same time providing plenty of appropriate chews and other toys. Play with your dog using those toys so that the pleasure for him is in only using them. When he does steal, don’t chase him, or you’re initiating a game. Call him to you or go after him methodically and unemotionally until you can hold him. Tell him “Leave it” as you open his mouth to remove the object. Be careful while doing this; if you sense your dog is getting overly aggressive, leave him. Confine him at the earliest opportunity and commit to working with an experienced dog trainer or behaviorist. The last thing you want is a dog to turn on you over a stolen object.
When you come inside to greet your dog, does he flop down and begin to wet himself? If so, you have a submissive urinator. First, check with your vet to make sure the problem isn’t due to a health issue. If it’s not, confine him somewhere that’s easy to clean so that you’re not doubly frustrated by a soiled carpet. Crate your dog or put him in a safe, confined space. When you approach to greet him after being away for a bit, do so in as emotionless a way as possible. If the problem has been going on for a while, you probably approach him reluctantly, anxiously, or suspiciously. He can pick up on your feelings, and they can contribute to his own anxiousness. Pretend he’s a strange dog whom you must get out the door calmly and gently, but as quickly as possible, so that he can do his business outside. If he urinates as you’re going outside, don’t react. Stay the course to the outside, let him do his thing, confine him again while you clean up, and then get on with the rest of your day. You must respond as unemotionally as possible until you feel you’re making progress. Slow and steady….
When training your dog—whether it’s to learn a new behavior or modify an existing behavior—it’s important to remember that he is an individual. The advice given here may have worked for many dogs and their owners but may not work for your dog and you. Explore other sources. Talk to other dog owners, particularly those who own the same breed.
Observe your dog as objectively as possible when trying to determine the source of problems so that you can understand what might be triggering them. Involve everyone in your household in the game plan to try to solve problems.
And last but not least, don’t let good intentions keep you from doing what’s necessary: If you aren’t succeeding but know something must be done, seek professional help. Don’t push your dog to the point at which you end up condemning him to a shelter. Help your best friend with all the resources available to you. Your responsibility toward him will be rewarded with his love and trust.