Meet the mutt-ley crew of bad dog behaviors

Meet the mutt-ley crew of bad dog behaviors

Let’s learn what Elvis Presley, Steppenwolf and George Thorogood can teach us to coach pet owners through their precocious pooches’ bad manners.
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Jun 15, 2018

Teaching a pet alternative behaviors early on can help with food guarding. Photo courtesy of Sherrie Yuschak, RVTBad boys (and girls) may be dreamy in the movies, but they’re not so easy to live with. Barking, jumping up and resource guarding are three terrors of doggie manners. When pet owners notice these bad-boy behaviors in their doggy darlings, they can be understandably frustrated. They also may not know how they’ve unwittingly contributed to their roguish pup’s brutish behaviors. And they become the inadvertent villains when they respond by yelling and bopping a pet on the nose with a newspaper. Let’s look at how to boot these bad behaviors and replace them with better ones.

Learn the trigger warnings

First, it’s necessary to help clients identify the stimuli that trigger undesired behavior. Then make a plan to manage and avoid the triggers and limit the behavior in the future. Remember, every time a dog practices an undesired behavior, it increases the likelihood that the dog will perform that behavior again.

You can immediately reduce everyone’s stress level by creating management plans to provide relief until the dog can learn alternative behaviors. Some problem behaviors will always benefit from a management plan—especially during times when clients are distracted and can’t focus directly on training the dog, like parties or kids’ play dates. 

Out with the bad …

Teach the dog a replacement behavior. When a client complains that their dog is jumping up, I like to ask, “What behavior would you like your dog to do instead? Let’s teach him to do that!” The best alternate behaviors are the ones that can’t physically be performed at the same time as the undesired behavior. For example a dog can’t sit and jump up at the same time. When training a dog, always use positive reinforcement training methods so there’s no fear or anxiety. Practice when the dog is calm and focused. Once the dog quickly and repeatedly executes the new behavior, gradually add in the trigger.

Keep heart in mind

Consider that the dog’s emotions impact her behavior. If the triggers cause her to become highly aroused due to anxiety, frustration, fear or joy, then it’s very difficult for her to learn a new behavior. Exercises that encourage relaxation are helpful, as are properly used games such as tug that practice gradually increasing excitement then returning to calm.

Remember that some dogs struggle with an abnormally quick hyper-arousal and a prolonged recovery. These dogs may benefit from supplements or medications combined with a behavior modification plan. A behavior consultation with an experienced veterinarian or board-certified veterinary behaviorist is warranted. This will also ensure medical ailments or confounding behavior abnormalities aren’t contributing to the presenting complaints.

Remember enrichment

Problem behavior often occurs when a dog’s needs aren’t adequately met. Clients may underestimate how much boredom, frustration, excess energy or loneliness contribute to their dog’s negative behavior. Suggest increasing physical exercise such as walks, interactive play like fetch or hide and seek, chewing, play with another dog, swimming or dog sports. Mental stimulation can include food puzzles, scent games, training and slow walks for sniffing. Human interaction is also critical to a dog’s well-being, and each dog should receive focused one-on-one attention every day. 

Now that we’ve covered the general rules to managing pet’s—and pet owners’—unruly behaviors, let’s look at how to handle the bad boys of behavior.

Behavior complaint: “My dog barks at the window when other dogs pass by.”

This is the Elvis Presley of dog behaviors, with the characteristic lippy sneer. As Presley croons in the song Trouble, “I was born standing up and talking back.” When pet owners are frustrated by all the “talking back” their pets are doing at the window, suggest these prevention and management strategies.

1. Change the environment and remove the triggers.

> Use opaque window film, remove viewing perches, block window access and add white noise or calming music.

> Move the dog’s crate to a quiet area away from the window.

> Create a quiet relaxation space in another room.  

2. Train the person.

> Avoid punishment such as yelling, throwing things at the dog or using a squirt bottle.

> Be proactive, not reactive. Identify common barking periods such as after school or work, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., or weekends.

> Distract the dog away from the window during high-traffic times. Use food puzzles, walks or play.

3. Teach these replacement behaviors:

> Recall away from the window on cue.

> Bark and stop barking on cue.

> Lie calmly on a mat.

> Play quietly with a food puzzle game or chew toy.

Note: Barking can be especially problematic for apartment dwellers. Clients may feel desperate to try risky options such as electronic bark collars. But stopping the barking through punishment without addressing the dog’s arousal can cause other unwanted behaviors due to anxiety and frustration.

Behavior complaint: “My dog jumps up onto guests.”

Like Steppenwolf, these distant canid cousins were born, born to be wild. And visiting guests may be less appreciative of the wild welcomes these wolfish door greeters give. Suggest these prevention and management strategies to bring their behaviors back in line.

1. Change the environment and remove the triggers.

> Disconnect doorbells or cover the button with tape.

> Post a note asking guests to text instead of knocking.

> Ask guests to come through the side or back door rather than the front.

> Address initial excitement. Avoid letting the dog greet the guest until everyone enters and settles.

2. Train the person.

> Avoid punishment such as yelling, pushing or pulling the dog and giving leash corrections.

> Be proactive, not reactive. Identify high-traffic times such as after school, before dinner or weekends.

> Schedule arrivals. Ask your guests to text or call when they’re on the way.

> Keep supplies ready, including a crate or mat, frozen food puzzles, chew toys, treats and a leash.

3. Teach replacement behaviors. Consider these options:

> Go to a mat, lie down, stay there and work on a puzzle.

> Go to a crate or another room, lie down, stay there and work on a puzzle.

> Go outside in the fenced yard and work on a puzzle or play.

> Re-enter the guest area once calm and on leash, and sit for petting.

Note: Many dogs will jump up onto certain people—especially kids or guests—but not their owners. Often it’s because of inadvertent and intermittent reinforcement: Guests talk to and pet the dog when he jumps up. This rewards the jumping up behavior. The dog will repeat the jumping up behavior next time. Practice, preparation and coaching your guests how to interact with the dog with your dog will help. 

Behavior complaint: “My dog growls when other dogs or people approach his food or toys.”

Much like George Thorogood, these pups are bad to the bone (and bad with the bone, too. See what we did there?). B-b-b-b-b-a-d. But they can learn better behavior if you suggest these prevention and management strategies.

1. Change the environment and remove the triggers.

> Remove preferred hiding spots for guarded objects, such as blankets, pillows and dog beds.

> Block access to potential objects with baby gates or closed doors. Place trash under the counter and keep kid’s toys in a play area.

2. Train the person.

> Be proactive, not reactive. List what the dog guards and any common incidents—for example, the bathroom trash was dumped or the dog steals tissues.

> Avoid punishment, such as yelling, chasing, cornering or forcefully removing the object.

> Don’t give the dog items he might guard: for example, no long-lasting chew toys, only treats that he can immediately consume.

3. Teach replacement behaviors.

> Don’t put your mouth on that when cued with the phrase, “leave it.”

> Pick up this item with your mouth when cued with the phrase, “take it.”

> Spit the item out of your mouth when cued with the phrase, “drop it.”

> Bring me the item in your mouth, with a cue such as “retrieve.”

Note: Puppies explore their environment with their mouth, and they frequently grab objects. Avoid prying the pup’s mouth open to take away the objects, as this can cause guarding. Instead, offer the pup a treat or toy as a trade. Prevention is much easier than treatment.

One final, important thought: Resource guarding in dogs can quickly escalate from stiff posturing to growling and then biting. Dogs that guard are experiencing anxiety, and this emotion needs to be addressed. Advanced behavior modification techniques by an experienced professional may be necessary. Always consider consulting a board-certified veterinary behaviorist when aggression occurs.

Resources

Professional positive-reinforcement based dog trainers.

American College of Veterinary Behaviorists member list. 

Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat, Third Edition. By Gary Landsberg, BSc, DVM, Dipl ACVB, DECWABM (behaviour); Wayne Hunthausen, BA, DVM; and Lowell Ackerman, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACVD, MBA, MPA

Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult Clinical Companion: Canine and Feline Behavior, by Debra F. Horwitz and Jacqueline C. Neilson

Canine and Feline Behavior for Veterinary Technicians and Nurses, by Julie Shaw and Debbie Martin

Sherrie Yuschak, RVT, VTS (behavior), CPDT-KA, is member-at-large of the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. She is also the owner of Better Behavior Solutions and a clinical behavioral technician at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.