What You Need to Know About Behavior Problems

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.

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