Dog behavior issues, whether they’ve been present for a while or are new to your dog, can become a burden and impact your quality of life as well as your dog’s. We’ve taken the most frequently asked questions about dog behavior and answered them as thoroughly and accurately as possible so you can rely upon sound dog training advice for encouraging good behavior.
If you’re looking for a highly trained veterinarian in Vallejo, CA, we’d love to confirm the behavior issues aren’t due to an underlying medical issue and help get your dog on the right path, so please feel free to call us at (707) 940-8748.
If my dog is having behavior problems, are they capable of change?
Yes, your dog is entirely capable of change. The earlier you notice a behavioral issue and try to modify it, the more successful you’ll be. If the problem has been present for three weeks, it might only take three weeks to correct it. However, if the behavior has been a problem for three years, it might take three years to correct it. It can become ingrained behavior, so jumping on it early is very helpful to the process.
When should you start dog obedience training?
Our advice is to begin puppy training early and be very consistent with what you say and do. For instance, if you don't want your dog to do something, saying “No” might work better than “don't bark” or “get off” since that’s too much vocabulary for a dog. Puppies learn something new every day, so you want them to learn the right things and avoid bad behaviors.
When you first bring them home, you can start with basic puppy training and simple commands such as “sit” and “stay.” Once they've completed all their vaccinations, you'll be able to bring them to a behaviorist, an obedience trainer, or begin puppy training classes. However, it’s important to realize that obedience training is a lifelong process since your dog can pick up undesirable habits at any time.
What are the most common behavior problems in dogs and how can they be addressed?
There are many behavior problems that you might experience, ranging from puppies who bite to eliminating in the house. Each is easily corrected with consistent, positive reinforcement.
The most common behavior problems include:
- Biting puppies – Give them appropriate toys to chew on and consistently say “no” or “leave it” when they start to chew on something other than their toys.
- Separation anxiety – Dogs don’t understand why they can’t be with their owner, which leaves them feeling stressed and can result in destructive behavior. This can be helped by associating something positive with leaving, such as a special toy that only comes out when they’re going in their crate. By associating something positive with you leaving, their anxiety will gradually be alleviated.
- Aggression – This behavior issue is best addressed by a professional trainer to avoid any mixed messages by an owner that might inadvertently perpetuate the problem.
- Chewing – This is often the result of boredom, with your shoes, socks, and furniture being the most common targets. You can divert this behavior by giving them a chew toy instead.
- Jumping – This behavior is usually a greeting, excitement, and a desire for social interaction after an absence. Telling them to “get down” or lightly pushing them down is encouraging the behavior since you’re interacting in return. The best solution is to make returning home as unexciting as possible, being careful to not show excitement towards your dog, entering calmly, and ignoring your dog until they are willing to demonstrate calm behavior.
When we're dealing with these behavior issues at All Creatures Veterinary Hospital, we think about management plans. How do we preempt the situation, and how do we prevent them from doing the behavior? It’s important to remember to reinforce the behavior that you want. In the example of jumping, you ignore them, but when they sit down it's time for praise and a few treats for positive reinforcement. That’s the key for any unwanted behaviors—find the behavior you want, and find a way to reinforce that behavior. Teach your dog this is what's going to work for you.
Can behavior issues in my dog ever indicate that they are sick?
Yes, behavior issues can be a sign of an underlying medical issue, so it’s always a good idea to ask a veterinarian to rule out anything medical.
The most common behavior changes we see in sick animals are:
- They're reclusive
- They sleep more
- They don't greet you at the door
- Their eating habits change
- A dog dragging their anus across the carpet can be a sign of an infection
- Walking in circles with a head tilt can indicate a neurologic disease or infection
- Suddenly urinating in the house can mean a urinary infection
If a behavior issue presents itself suddenly with no apparent cause, it’s important to visit us at All Creatures Veterinary Hospital to see if there’s an underlying medical issue. Also, as dogs get older, cognitive decline can play a role in behavior changes. The AVMA has great insight into behavior issues in senior pets.
What are some behavior problems that may be associated with a medical condition?
You would see a dog that is not eating as well, quieter than usual, lethargic, doesn't want to play, doesn't want to go up or down the steps, suddenly eliminating inside or going outside more often, or pressing their head against the wall. These could all be signs of an infection or a larger issue.
When might my dog need medication for behavioral problems?
This is an ongoing discussion in the veterinary world. Much of this comes down to figuring out how much the behavior affects either you or your dog's quality of life. In some situations, behaviors are particular to triggers. For example, a dog might act fine in the house, but when they go outside and see another dog, they become aggressive. Or they’re fine except when they come to the vet. In these situations in which a dog is stressed, we sometimes use short-term medications. For dogs that are anxious and scared on a daily basis, that's negatively affecting their quality of life. Those are circumstances in which anti-anxiety medications for long-term use can make a significant difference. There are pros and cons to different medications, so that's something we would discuss to figure out the best choice for your dog.
What should I look for in a trainer?
How to train your dog is slightly controversial in some people's eyes. We would suggest you find a positive reinforcement-based trainer. There is no room in any situation for punishment-based training. It can be difficult to tell when you're evaluating a trainer based on their website, so one thing to watch for would be using what's called an e-collar. This is essentially a shock or vibration collar. You should also avoid anyone who's calling themselves a balanced trainer, which likely means they are using aversive training (uncomfortable or negative reinforcement of behaviors). There's a lot of data that supports the fact that these techniques do not work long-term, and can actually worsen behavior issues. Look for positive reinforcement, and if you're not sure, ask for references and inquire about their methods.
How can a veterinarian help address my dog's behavior problems?
First, we'll examine your dog to make sure it's not a medical issue. For example, if your dog is urinating inappropriately, we are going to palpate the abdomen for any masses or abnormal changes. We'll collect a urine sample so we can check for signs of crystals, stone formation, and infections. If we rule out a medical cause, we would be left with a behavior issue, and at that point would direct you to a behaviorist.
What other dog behavior management options are available?
There are trainers who specialize in puppies to get them started on the right foot and eliminate behavioral issues right from the start. For older dogs, there are usually local obedience trainers who specialize in certain behaviors, such as aggression toward other dogs or pulling too much on the leash. Ask your veterinarian about certified behavior trainers who might be able to help with more difficult problems, like aggression towards people or children.
It’s important to remember that a lot of behavior issues come from boredom and neglect, so if you work outside the home all day, consider bringing your dog to a family or friend who is home to keep them entertained and active. This will help to minimize destructive behavior.
If you have further questions about your dog’s behavior, reach out to your veterinarian. If you live in or near Vallejo, CA, we’d love to discuss the issues you’re experiencing in person, so please don’t hesitate to call us at (707) 940-8748.