What are behaviour problems?
Behaviour problems are things that our pet dogs do that are felt to be socially unacceptable. This can range from inconvenient behaviour such as trouble with toilet training, to serious issues such as aggressive biting of humans. Some form of training is essential in all pet dogs as it not only creates harmony within your home but it provides essential boundaries and mental enrichment for your pet. Dog training classes or one-on-one training with a qualified force-free behaviourist are recommended, depending on your needs, so please ask your vet for recommendations in your area.
What are the common behaviour problems?
There are a vast variety of behaviour problems in dogs, and problems experienced in puppies can vary from those in adults. This sheet includes a section on puppy socialising and mouthing as well as information on four common reasons dogs are sadly placed in rescue centres. Regardless of what behavioural problem requires training, it is essential to be calm and consistent as well as have patience with yourself and your dog. All effective training techniques take time and dedication.
Dogs learn a lot of their social skills in the first three months of life so exposing them to different situations during this time can help shape their future behaviour. Typically most puppy owners focus on toilet training and basic commands (sit, stay, paw etc). It is also a good idea to get your puppy used to seeing a variety of different people (young/old/male/female), animals and places, including busy/noisy roads, schools etc. It is important, though, to take your time and let your puppy become comfortable and happy with each situation. If they become overwhelmed and stressed with too much all at once, this can lead to problems later on when placed in similar situations.
This can be challenging when a puppy is not able to go out for walks yet, however, it should be safe to carry them instead. This mental stimulation is essential for your puppy’s development and it will also tire them out making other training easier.
Apart from socialising with people, puppies also need to socialise with other dogs. They benefit from playing with other puppies of a similar age (this can usually be done in training classes or puppy parties) as well as meeting older well behaved dogs to learn acceptable introductions on walks. Again it is important to expose them to different breeds/sizes of dog so they can gain confidence with any dog they meet.
Mouthing is a normal behaviour but as puppy teeth are sharp it is frequently painful if they mouth our hands. It is important to note that puppies often mouth when they want attention and so any attention you give them (positive or negative) can reinforce the behaviour. Giving them toys and removing any items you do not want mouthed/chewed can help to encourage mouthing on appropriate items particularly when they are teething.
For very young puppies, they are always going to mouth (it’s natural and normal!), so the best approach its redirection onto something they CAN mouth safely.
For older puppies who have grown beyond this instinctive need, it is important to remember that when the dog mouths you, he is trying to get your attention. In order to communicate that this is the wrong way to ask, stop interacting immediately when teeth touch your skin or clothing and say 'Teeth!' or some other command. Then all communication with the dog must come to an abrupt stop. Don’t look at him, or speak to him. It must be clear that the consequences of his teeth having touched you are that you will not interact with him whatsoever.
Leave it a moment or two and then interact with the dog again; this reinforces the “good” behaviour of not mouthing you. If it happens again, this is another training opportunity to repeat the above.
Pulling on the lead
This may not sound like a serious problem but it is a common complaint from owners adopting a dog from a rescue centre. Pulling on the lead can not only be painful to the owner but it has the potential to injure the dog. Should the lead break/be pulled from the owner’s hand, it can lead to serious accidents. Dogs may pull on the lead through excitement or aggression if they are pulling towards a target or through fear if they are pulling to avoid a situation. Training a dog to walk on a loose lead is strongly recommended and often needs to be reinforced on a daily basis, particularly in dogs with a strong instinct to pull.
It is normal for dogs to want company but it is not always possible for us to have someone with them at all times. Dogs that get stressed when left alone may suffer from separation anxiety but this can vary from mild (a few whimpers) to extreme (constant barking/howling, destruction of property). Not only is it distressing for us to know that our pet is stressed but it can sadly cause problems with neighbours and even cause conflict within the family.
Training a dog to be happy to be left alone takes time and patience. It should be done very gradually starting with leaving the room to turn on the kettle and coming back straight away and rewarding calm behaviour. Over time, try to work up by one minute at a time until the dog can be left for as many hours as needed. Having a dog that is mentally and physically tired can help with this but please speak to a qualified behaviourist to have a programme tailored to your needs.
Dogs can become overprotective of anything they consider a resource e.g food, toys, favourite sleeping spots and even people. This behaviour is inappropriate as it can easily escalate from simply stealing a resource and hiding away to aggressive guarding (standing over a resource, vocalising) and biting.
It is important to try and avoid conflict in these situations to prevent escalation. At a basic level this can be done by offering the dog an alternative to the resource they’re guarding that they want more e.g. offering food as an alternative to the toy they’re playing with. There are several techniques that can be utilised in this situation depending on the resource. However, inappropriate techniques may make matters worse, so please speak to a qualified behaviourist about what will work best in your situation.
Biting or Fear aggression
This is probably the most worrisome behaviour problem due to the Dangerous Dogs Act, 1991. Dogs that bite a human are at risk of euthanasia based on the terms set out in this law. Dogs can bite for a variety of reasons so it is important to get a health check from your vet to check for signs of illness/pain which may be causing your dog to lash out.
If no underlying medical reason can be found your vet will direct you to a qualified behaviourist to assess their behaviour for any triggers and implement steps to prevent further incidents. Prescription medication may be of benefit in some cases and your behaviourist should work with your vet if they feel this would be appropriate. If despite time and specialist help a dog is still unsafe, then sadly euthanasia may be the best option rather than the dog continuing to be constantly afraid and lashing out.
A dog should not be punished for growling as this makes them more likely to escalate to a bite without warning next time. A growl is your dog’s way of telling you they are unhappy or uncomfortable with a situation, and you should take action to remove them from that situation before they escalate the behaviour to a bite.
A large number of bites involve children, who have not learned to read a dog’s body language. Very few dogs will bite as a first resort - they will usually indicate their discomfort through body language, attempts to get away from the situation, and growling or whimpering before they feel that biting is their only remaining option. Learning to read a dog’s body language and taking action to de-escalate a situation will often prevent the problem occurring in the first place.