Behavioural problems in dogs are common, and often misunderstood. They are also sadly one of the most common reasons for dogs to be given up for rehoming. Perhaps you need help for your own dog with a challenging behaviour, or perhaps you are new to pet ownership and just want some pointers for prevention. In this blog we explain how normal dog behaviour can veer into the problematic. Also give some tips on how to start tackling these issues.
What is normal behaviour?
For years, discussions about dog behaviour were overly influenced by what we know about wolves. But theories about dominance and pack hierarchies have mostly been disproved. Most behavioural specialists now agree that the domesticated dog species we live with today are very different from their ancestors. Dogs are highly social with complex communication systems,. They require both mental and physical stimulation and form strong bonds with humans.
In truth, all ‘behavioural problems’ have their roots in perfectly normal dog behaviour. Barking is normal, excessive vocalisation is a problem. Chewing is beneficial, destruction is not. The key to understanding dog behaviour is to realise that dogs have a strong need to express certain behaviours. As an active intelligent species they need safe outlets for these mental and physical needs.
So, what is ‘bad’ behaviour?
It can be tricky to pinpoint the exact time a dog’s behaviour tips over from ‘normal’, or even ‘playful’ or ‘sensitive’ into a ‘problem’. Dogs’ behaviour depends on many factors, including breed, age, temperament and early life. A young greyhound is much more likely to chase small animals than an older pug (and probably more likely to be successful too! – Ed.). A large, boisterous puppy may pull strongly on the lead when an elderly toy breed may not. Elderly dogs can get snappy when handled if they suffer from arthritis.
Owners will also interpret behaviours in different ways. What is a problem for one owner may be perfectly manageable for another. The key to a good relationship is that both are happy. The dog can display normal canine behaviour and not suffer from fear, anxiety or discomfort, and the owner can manage these behaviours within their lifestyle.
Top tips for preventing problems
Prevention is always more preferable to fixing issues, so here are some top tips to avoid these scenarios from occurring:
- Think about your lifestyle before choosing a breed – for example, if you have a sedentary lifestyle and a small garden, perhaps stay away from the large active breeds
- Invest the time and effort in training and socialisation. There are plenty of classes available, and lots of resources online.
- Use reward-based training as a much more effective tool than shouting or punishment, which often just leads to defensive behaviour.
- Make sure commands are consistent across family members.
- Provide plenty of exercise, and mental stimulation, to avoid boredom and frustration
- Allow your dog’s natural playfulness and chewing behaviours to be satisfied by providing safe toys and lots of different things to chew
- Access to a safe hiding place (such as a crate) will give a sense of security and reduced anxiety in stressful situations.
Common behavioural problems
Barking, growling, whining… these are all normal methods of communication for dogs. However, excessive vocalisation can be a real problem – and make you very unpopular with your neighbours! Dogs bark for many reasons, and some breeds are much more vocal than others. Trying to figure out a trigger is a good starting point: common reasons include excitement, fear and boredom. Training your dog to understand a ‘quiet’ command can be very helpful, but often expert advice alongside a lot of training and time may be needed to reverse what is often a well ingrained problem.
This is actually a really important natural behaviour for dogs. The action of chewing releases serotonin (a brain chemical associated with happiness and satisfaction) and dogs have a strong innate need to chew. A lack of appropriate toys and chews to gnaw on can therefore lead to frustration and destructive behaviours. Puppies are especially vulnerable due to natural curiosity and teething pain. Dogs who are chewing on inappropriate household objects such as furniture will need lots of different types of chew toys provided. But once the behaviour has become a habit an expert behaviourist may be required to reverse that learnt process and redirect them to more desirable habits.
This is another common problem that owners come to the vets with. It often manifests as vocalising, destructive behaviour or inappropriate toileting. It can start well before the owner has even left the house. This can be a huge problem for both owner and dog, and may need significant lifestyle changes to help resolve. But anyone struggling with this difficult scenario needs to seek advice from a behaviourist. Separation anxiety can be managed and improved but requires dedicated behavioural modification including desensitisation techniques. Some severe cases may even require medication alongside behavioural techniques.
Dog to dog aggression
This is another behavioural issue that is seen regularly by veterinary surgeons. It is often due to poor socialisation leading to dogs not learning how to communicate well with other dogs, but can also be down to a negative experience leading to fear aggression or due to competition for resources between dogs in the same household.
Dog to dog aggression often intensifies over time, especially as it can be a great source of stress to owners which then leads to a heightened sense of anxiety for the dog. These cases will need intensive desensitisation training under the care of an expert behaviourist, and often need a large time investment to fully resolve as the steps back towards being happy and confident with other dogs need to be small and taken very slowly.
Aggression to people (biting)
Puppies use their mouths to explore their environment, and as they grow, they should learn boundaries. They also learn ‘bite inhibition’ – the concept of controlling how hard they bite. It is fairly common to see adolescent dogs still mouthing who haven’t learnt these important skills.
Human aggression can be a very serious problem behaviour. Dogs can become aggressive for many reasons including fear, frustration, pain or resource-guarding. Owners should always be aware of warning signs commonly displayed by dogs about to bite: growling, lunging, showing teeth and flattened ears, and young children should always be supervised when with animals.
An aggressive dog should always have a full health check with a vet: pain is a common trigger for aggression and should be ruled out with a thorough examination. If nothing medical is found, expert behavioural advice is an absolute must in these cases as they can escalate quickly and become a very dangerous problem. Intensive behavioural modification over a long period of time, possibly alongside medication, will likely be required.
So how can I find a behaviourist?
The easiest way to find a qualified, trustworthy behaviourist is via a referral from your vet. Many behaviourists work closely with vets, and many will require the dog to have a full exam with a vet first to rule out painful medical conditions. If your vet cannot recommend a specific expert, then the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) is an international group of qualified, experienced experts in pet behaviour and will be able to link you with a local expert.