Understanding Behavioral Problems in Dogs
If your dog is currently more than you can handle, it's time for a new plan. But before you commit to one behavioral modification strategy, it'll be important to identify the underlying problem or problems that are driving your pet to behave so poorly in the first place. Behavioral problems can originate widely, and understanding those origins will be the critical first step in finding a treatment that actually works for your dog.
Common Destructive Behavioral Problems in Dogs
- eating feces
- constant barking
- inappropriate elimination
- destroying items or furniture
- escaping or repeated attempts to escape
Having a dog with destructive behavioral problems can be devastating. A destructive pet oftentimes creates more anxiety and chaos in its owner's life rather than becoming the calming companion one had hoped for.
But not all behavioral problems are inherently destructive; however, that doesn't make them less problematic. If your dog is exhibiting less dangerous behaviors, such as general nervousness, his life as well as yours is likely negatively impacted. Other problems worth addressing include:
- abnormal drooling
- excessively grooming
- pacing or restlessness
- lack of energy/depression
- compulsive tail or light chasing
If your dog is not enriching your life and you're starting to feel like this isn't what you signed up for, you're not alone. The good news is that there's help available for behavioral problems; strategies you can try at home, veterinary insights and professional training may all help your dog become a more functional part of your family.
Why Do Dogs Act Out?
The most common reasons for your dog's behavioral issues will fall into one of these five categories:
4 Ways to Help Improve Your Dog’s Behavior
The best thing you can do for your dog and yourself is to try various approaches that'll help you identify what's at the core of the issue. Some dogs may need multiple interventions while others experience a huge turnaround after just one small change. Here are some strategies to employ:
1. Early Training
If you have the luxury of early training, waste no time. The sooner you start, the better your chances are you'll be able to overcome or even entirely prevent your dog's bad behavior. However, don't let the old adage "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" deter you either. Older dogs have just as much of a capacity and desire to learn as younger ones, and with the exception of dogs that are suffering from cognitive decline at the end stages of their lives, you can expect as much from an older dog as you would a young one. While older dogs may not show the same level of enthusiasm and might move a bit slower, implementing a regular training routine will still yield plenty of benefits.
When your dog is engaged in training, he's not just learning the rules; he's getting plenty of mental stimulation. Different dogs enjoy different types of mental stimulation, depending on breed and disposition, but all dogs require it; mental stimulation is just as important as physical exercise.
When you take your dog to the local dog park daily for a 20-minute game of fetch, he's only getting part of the exercise he needs. Without proper mental stimulation, he'll continue to hold on to a lot of pent up energy which could easily be mistaken for the physical need to exercise. If left unaddressed, that energy can quickly devolve into destruction, particularly in breeds that require higher levels of mental stimulation. Exercising your dog's body and mind in conjunction is a great recipe for increased happiness, reduced anxiety and therefore also a reduction in bad behaviors such as barking or chewing.
There's nothing better than finding a hobby you truly enjoy. When you do something you're good at, you're likely to engage with it longer and keep repeating it. The same can be said for dogs, and that's important because not all dogs are good at - and therefore enjoy - the same things. If you can identify which skill or skills your dog naturally leans toward, you'll ultimately have a much easier time training him and keeping his mind busy and engaged. Dog skills fall into one of seven categories:
Understanding what your dog is naturally good at will allow you to appropriately tailor your training and find your dog a mentally stimulating "job" he'll be able to engage in to boost his happiness and decrease his boredom and/or anxiety.
Examples of Mental Stimulating Exercises & Activities for Your Dog
- hide and seek
- the shell game
- learn new tricks
- fetch toys by name
- agility coursework
- practice learned tricks
- vary up your walking routes
- enroll in a pet therapy program
- let your dog sniff around on walks
- talk to your dog; engage more personally
- take your dog with you on errands, if it's safe
2. More Consistency
Dogs, much like babies and kids, develop better with consistency. That's true for both training and the everyday. Here's how you can keep things more consistent:
Think of a skill you learned when you were a child; something small such as doing a cartwheel or flying a kite. Although you technically know how to execute these skills even today, unless you've practiced them consistently since you learned them, you can expect your performance to be fair at best.
As you start training, it'll help to think of the skills your dog learns as semi-temporary. But all that inconsistent practice won't just lead to an inconsistent performance on his end, it'll also hamper your ability to provide the kind of training your dog needs to succeed. To you, the difference between "down" and "off" may be minimal and the meaning implied, but to him it'll mean the difference between having confidence in his abilities and increased confusion and anxiety.
Similarly, because dogs are very bad at generalizing, it isn't enough to teach a command a few times and expect him to know how to apply it in other scenarios or in different locations. When training, vary your locations and reinforce what he's learned under a variety of circumstances.
In the Everyday
Even when you're not actively training, it's important to be consistent with your expectations and your routine. If you've decided the dog can't get on the couch, make sure that's always true - for you and for everyone in the family. Once dogs know what’s expected of them, they become confident and less reactive.
When your dog's day is completely unpredictable, it'll elevate his stress levels which contributes to anxiety and therefore also poor behavior. All dogs are adaptable, however, your dog's adaptability will vary from the next, and that's due to factors including his past, his genetics and more.
Since your dog's knowledge of his surroundings and the world at large is very limited, having a routine that keeps things consistent will provide him with predictable cues he knows he can rely on. Dogs thrive on consistency, especially when it comes to their most basic needs such as safety, food and shelter.
- take regular walks
- feed him at the same time of day
- keep your expectations of him consistent
- stick to regular bathroom times (especially if potty training)
- allow him free access to his bed or crate, wherever he goes to feel safe
3. More Exercise
Exercise is important for so many reasons. While it may not look the same for every dog; some dogs enjoy a good workout while others are most happy meandering, not having a regular outdoor routine causes boredom for all dogs. Boredom manifests in a variety of ways including pacing, whining, chewing, looking through the garbage, barking, tipping over water bowls, digging/scratching and more.
If your bored dog is looking to entertain himself, a simple increase in his exercise could be the trick.
At minimum, walk your dog 2-3 times a day for 20 minutes or more. If you have a working breed or a retrieving dog he'll need more activity in his daily routine.
- run together
- hide and seek
- fetch and retrieve
- go on hikes together
- take him to a dog park
- invest in agility training
The benefits of exercise extend beyond physical health. For many dogs, physical exercise also provides mental stimulation, so be sure to identify your dog's strengths to get the most out of your time.
4. Enlist a Professional
Your dog's bad behavior can have a variety of origins and may not be as easy as improving his surroundings. If your dog has had a rough upbringing, is genetically predisposed to certain types of behaviors or is suffering from an underlying illness, your plan of action might include changes as home as well as highly targeted exercises and/or medications
Before you start testing out theories, it makes sense to take your pup in for a veterinary assessment, particularly if his behavioral issues started abruptly or have suddenly worsened. Your vet will be able to determine if your dog has an underlying medical condition that could be causing the problem.
A behaviorist can provide an objective opinion, which can be incredibly valuable for a lot of dog owners. Being too close to the problem can oftentimes cause you to spin your wheels and identify a potential solution you've previously missed.
Here's what you should look for when choosing a trainer for your dog:
Has training and experience in the field you need help in
- Is someone who effectively communicates and respects your wishes
- Helps you to learn how to apply his or her methods in your own home
- Provides training in a manner that doesn't conflict with your own philosophies
Keep an Eye Out for These Dog Trainer Red Flags
- makes guarantees
- doesn't have references
- doesn't require vaccinations
- doesn't disclose training methods
- doesn't allow you to observe or participate
- offers only board training/boot camps for dogs
- uses outdated terminology such as "alpha" or "assertive energy"