As a pet parent, you want your fur baby to be happy and contented, so if your dog experiences behavior problems it can be upsetting and stressful. There are many examples of behavior problems in dogs, from phobias and anxiety to aggressive behavior. But what can you do to help your canine companion overcome these issues? And when should you seek the help of a veterinarian or other professional?
Types of behavior issues
Although the most common dog phobia is to fireworks, dogs can develop phobias to almost anything. Thunder and lightning storms, traffic, raised voices, and other noisy situations are all phobias that, as veterinarians, we come across very regularly. If your pet suffers from phobias you may notice them shaking or trembling, panting, trying to hide, or barking, and they may be in such a state of panic that you cannot distract them or console them. Due to their stress, they may also pass urine or feces in the home, or even damage furniture or carpets by chewing or digging.
Our furry friends love spending time with us and that’s just how we like it. However, sometimes their attachment to us as devoted pet parents becomes so intense that they are very anxious when left alone. Separation anxiety can be a frustrating issue, and one that can commonly cause rifts between neighbors if there are regular noisy disturbances. Dogs affected with separation anxiety will often bark excessively, pant, pace around frantically, and may perform destructive behaviors like chewing the edge of your favorite rug or scratching the door repeatedly.
Some dogs love to travel in the car, and others aren’t bothered either way. However, a reasonable proportion of dogs feel anxious when traveling in the car and can even develop nausea and sickness from the motion or panic. Dogs who feel anxious in the car may bark or pace, refusing to lie down and are unable to relax.
Dogs can exhibit behavior that can be termed “aggressive” for many reasons, and it’s not because they’re a bad dog. A lot of dogs will show signs like growling, snapping, or biting if they are fearful or feel threatened. Dogs see the world slightly differently from us and have various resources that they feel are essential for their survival and happiness. These would include shelter, food, toys, and their own space where they know they will be undisturbed. A dog will protect these resources, which can explain aggression that would otherwise seem unpredictable.
Aggression toward other dogs is a branch of fear aggression, since the root of the behavior is fear of, and feeling threatened by another dog. Dog aggression can vary in severity—from dogs who may bark, growl, or lash out if greeted by another dog, to those who react negatively to just seeing another dog in the distance.
If your dog barks excessively, it can cause strained relationships with neighbors, and even other members of the household. Excessive barking is normally to one or more stimuli, including the postman, other visitors to the home, wildlife, cats, and other dogs.
How can I improve my dog’s behavior problem?
If your dog has bitten or has shown concerning signs of aggression, do not try to tackle the problem alone. Take precautions to keep yourself safe while seeking professional behavior advice and intervention.
The basis of correcting or improving most behavior issues is positive reinforcement. Negative responses to “bad behavior” like shouting, putting in time-out, or other punishments are no longer recommended. The key to positive reinforcement is to praise the behavior you want and ignore the behaviors you don’t want.
With a positive reinforcement approach to training, the key is to start small and keep your expectations realistic. For example, the starting point for a dog with separation anxiety could be praising or rewarding your pooch with a treat when they don’t react to you moving just a short distance from them in the same room. Similarly, with dogs that show noise phobias, a good starting point would be to use a recording of scary noises (there are CDs and MP3s available) and playing it at a barely audible volume. Remember to say “good boy” or give a treat when they do not react and ignore when they do.
Build up gradually
The next step is to gradually increase the stimulus. So if your dog has separation anxiety, you could gradually get further away until you leave the room, and eventually the house. Or if your dog shows aggression with other dogs, you could start with a dog far away and out of sight, and over time bring them closer. Remember that all progress should be slow and if you do get a reaction ignore it and go back to the previous step that didn’t cause a reaction.
It is important to carry out this type of training in a quiet environment with no distractions, but as your dog’s behavior improves, you can gradually make the environment busier, noisier, and more challenging.
If your dog has previously bitten or snapped, or you feel scared for your safety or the safety of your family you must seek professional help from a certified behaviorist. Speak to one of our veterinary team and we will be able to refer you. We can also give you advice on how to stay safe while waiting for the behavior to improve.
What precautions can I take if my dog has bitten before?
If your dog has shown aggression towards you, or another person, before and you are awaiting behaviorist or veterinary intervention, you can follow these steps to stay as safe as possible:
- Remember that dogs will protect resources that they believe are vital to their survival, including shelter, food, water, toys, and their own space. Do not take anything from your dog that may be perceived as threatening any of these resources.
- Ensure your dog has a safe space where they can retreat and won’t be bothered or disturbed. Allowing an escape route from an undesirable situation will help them relax.
- Try to keep track of the situations where they have bitten or shown aggression before and ensure you do not put them in a similar situation again.
- Ensure other members of the household, especially children, are aware of the risks and that they should give the dog space.
- Inform any strangers, visitors, veterinarians, groomers, or anyone else who may have contact with your dog that they have bitten and to be cautious.
Behavior issues with your dog can be really stressful, and in some cases dangerous. The most important thing is to recognize the training steps you can take yourself, but also to know when to ask for help from professionals.