When dealing with a behavior problem the world suddenly seems like a sea or conflicting articles, books, TV magic, and unwelcomed advice from passer-bys. It can be hard to find reasonable solutions that don’t require insane technical skills, an obscene amount of time, or a hearty team of dogs and people on stand-by for training drills. So what is the honest truth about behavior problems. How will you ever know that if you do ___ for ___ amount of time you will see ___ results?
Well here is the low-down…
There are two kinds of behavior problems (or maybe two ends of the spectrum). On one end you have behaviors that are not really problems at all if you’re a dog. Digging, barking, destructive chewing, and chasing things and killing small animals are all pretty normal dog things and are only a problem for dogs insofar as we people don’t like them (and it can sometimes be dangerous). The great news is that most of these behavior problems have very simple fixes. Some solutions are easier and faster than others, but by and large the outlook is good.
And then there are “abnormal” behavior problems like unpredictability, obsessive behavior, inappropriate reactions to normal events, and self-harm. Although we have to keep in mind that “abnormal dog” is a little bit of an oxymoron here because dogs, in and of themselves, are not natural. Dogs and all their cooky breed-specific tendencies (behavioral and physical) were tweaked and exaggerated by people. So in many cases there’s no fine line between “this is a perfectly functioning breed trait” and “this is crazy”. Many of the breeds we love so much today were selected for behaviors like high pain tolerance (I don’t learn from bad experiences), high drive to herd or hunt (I attack moving car tires and burrow through drywall if I hear a mouse), and protectiveness (I react aggressively to people I don’t know).
The good news is that a lot of the breed-specific behaviors can be channeled into appropriate breed-specific activities that you can leverage. Many of these behaviors in their origin are impractical or difficult to indulge in our modern world (like treeing coons or herding cattle) but more reasonable versions of them can be found and used to your advantage, most definitely. Especially since some of these behaviors are intrinsically very reinforcing for your dog without your involvement and carry large emotional attachments that make them slow and tough to change if they’re unwanted or uncontrolled.
Bad behavior problems happen to good people. You can do a lot right and still see behavioral problems. So stop beating yourself up so much, it’s not going to do you or your dog any good. I work with clients every single day who did their research along with all the prescribed socialization and training (plus some) with their young dog and still have unwanted behaviors. Sometimes it takes the keen eye of an experienced trainer to spot budding behavior problems and give owners the right tools to resolve them and so things get missed sometimes.
Here are some things that determine how much time, work, and skill a particular behavioral problem will require…
The dog you have. There is a ton you can do to ensure that your dog enjoys the same activities you do but on some level, there’s no accounting for taste (your dog’s taste that is). Dogs are living, breathing, personality-filled beings and that make them so fun. Just keep in mind that while some experiences are fun for your dog, some will just be okay, and a few others will just be too much to safely ask no matter what you do. We can do a lot to tip the scales but we can’t completely program our dogs like robots and who wants to?
Nature and nurture. We can shape young dogs immensely through structured training and socializing but there is always some left to personality and early experience. There is no real point in trying to figure out which is which. Just work with the dog you have and the behaviors you are seeing.
Age and maturity. This counts for a lot and is heavily overlooked. Dogs mature into adults between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. Yes, you read that right, three years. It takes that long for our dogs opinions to fully form and then, for many dogs, their opinions just get stronger with age. If your 3 year old dog doesn’t like rough-housing with young puppies, that is not likely to change. If your 10 month old dog is very particular about which dogs it selects for friends, that will likely remain and only become more targeted with age. In both of these situations we can teach or dogs to be tolerant and patience with other dogs but loving or even liking these certain dogs might be pushing it.
Bumps in the road…
Emotions complicate things. We hear about this in many popular R&B songs but it applies to dogs too, at least when it comes to behavior problems. When we tackle a behavior problem, we have to deal with the apparent behavior as well as the underlying emotions. This is a point where various training methods and techniques really differ. There are ample resources on how to temporarily mask the expression of a behavior but changing the underlying emotions requires a more structured technical approach. The type and strength of an emotional association is one of the biggest factors in estimating how much work and time a particular issue will require.
Access to training resources. Some behavior problems require much less set-up than others. Issues like resource guarding (a pretty normal doggy behavior) can be dealt with in the home with just you, your dog, and some tasty treats. Other issues, like barking at people who extend their hand in a certain way towards your dog to greet it, can be much harder to set up, “Hey stranger can you come over here and try to pet my dog so I can train him, he might try to bite you so watch out!”. Some behaviors are best tackled with the help of a friendly training group, very supportive friends, and a sometimes willingness to approach complete strangers for help.
Predictability and damage done. Some dogs are much more predictable than others and some do much more damage, this is not a breed trait. Acquired bite inhibition is a real thing, some dogs learned to use their mouths gently as pups and don’t do damage when they bite, even when scared or in pain. Others bite hard. This has nothing to do with breed except that large hard-biting dogs can, of course, do more damage than small hard-biting dogs. Less predicable dogs who bite hard are much riskier training endeavors and their behavioral and bite history must be weighed with careful consideration.
Questions to ask before starting a training program…
Is my dog physically healthy? This may seem like a big fat “duh” but a lot of the dogs I work with are silently carrying some pain or imbalance that constantly contributes to their behavioral issue, or prevents its resolution. I know dogs that attack approaching dogs because they have back pain and it hurts when dogs try to play with them, dogs that are constantly itchy and uncomfortable and consequently uncooperative for handling, dogs that react strongly to strangers reaching over their heads because their vision or hearing is nearly nonexistent, the list goes on. The upside to health issues is that they are often a straightforward fix to otherwise complex and time consuming behavioral issues.
Can my dog take the edge off? This often means exercise but it can also be appropriate chewing opportunities or indulging in breed-specific tendencies. Dogs, like us, need some regular activity that takes the edge off, relieves stress, and puts them in a good mood.
Is my dog’s brain being worked? This is a big one, especially for dogs or breeds that are prone to obsessive behaviors like herding dogs that chase shadows or terriers that do back flips off of a windowsill all day when people pass. These dogs may appear to just need more exercise but for many of them, there will never be such a thing as “enough” exercise. They need to work out their minds. Lucky for us there are lots of ways to stimulate a dog’s brain: learning stuff, sensory stimulation (like smells and sounds), new experiences, and problems solving (like puzzle toys) are just some of them.
Can I engage my dog? Or in other words, “Do I know how to motivate my dog?”. Another oft overlooked pillar to success. Sometimes dogs are inattentive and disobedient because their person is, well, boring… at least for the moment. We often expect our dogs to work for us without incentive or question. In reality this just doesn’t happen, even if it would appear so sometimes. There is always more to the picture you’re not seeing. Dogs are working to get something or to avoid something, those are really the only two options. If you haven’t found something that motivates your dog you are behind the curve and need to start working on this right now. Plus, you may find that much of those stubborn and unruly behavior problems seem to melt away when you do.
So there you have it: what you need to know about behavior problems… and a bunch of ways to start resolving them today. You are already off to a great start.