Dog Behavior - A Compassionate, Sensible, Effective Approach
Every responsible dog owner wants their pet to have perfect behavior, but this doesn’t happen overnight. If you've turned to the internet because your puppy or dog is having behavior issues or perhaps you want to head them off at the pass, we commend you for being a responsible pet parent. At GeniusVets, we believe that pet care information should come from veterinarians and not from Dr. Google, as anyone with a keyboard can spread information these days, and misinformation about dog behavior can be disastrous. That’s why we’ve taken dog behavior FAQs, sent these questions to renowned veterinarians across the U.S., and compiled their replies to get you helpful information that you can trust.
While we've sourced all of the dog behavior information and recommendations below directly from leading veterinarians across the country, please make sure to seek out the advice of your own veterinarian or find a trusted vet near you using the GeniusVets Directory.
Yes, of course, dogs are capable of behavior change. The earlier you notice a disturbing behavior and try to modify it, the more successful you’ll be. However, the adage is true—you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Behavior changes in dogs can be challenging, which is why we say to nip unwanted behaviors in the bud as soon as possible. It takes a long time to instigate change when that behavior has been there for a long time. If the problem has been there for three weeks, it can take you three weeks to correct. If the problem has been there for three years, it might take you three years to modify it. You want to try and get a jump on these things before they become ingrained behavior.
You can't start too early with dog socialization and behavior. It's a lifelong process, but in terms of development periods in dogs, the earlier we can start having a positive influence on them, the better off they will be long term. You can start with some toilet training as well as basic commands such as sit and stay. Once they've completed all their vaccinations and your veterinarian gives you the "all clear," you'll be able to take them out of the safe home environment to a behaviorist or a trainer and do puppy classes.
Keep vocabulary simple and use body language. For example, if you don’t want your dog to bark or jump on you, simply say “Quiet” instead of “Stop that” or “Don’t bark.” Also, be very consistent. And remember, when dogs are puppies, it’s a long-held belief that they’re able to learn something new every day. Use this to your advantage by teaching them the right things and discouraging bad behavior.
Anxiety is a significant one. That often goes two ways; we get very attached to our pets. Many of us have dogs that go everywhere with us. Unfortunately, separation anxiety can lead to destructive behavior such as urinating in the house, scooting on carpets, chewing the trim off of doorframes, barking, mounting, and possible aggression towards other dogs or animals around food. In these cases, we find behavioral changes to associate something positive with leaving. For example, give your puppy or dog a durable rubber toy with squeeze cheese in it out of the freezer that you only get when we put you in your crate. We're associating something very positive with something very negative. Other times, however, we need to get to the point where we use some anti-anxiety medicines.
Biting is another unwanted behavior, but it's relatively easy to address by redirecting. You can find appropriate things for them to chew on and get them busy doing something else. Sometimes biting indicates they're sleepy, and they need to be put in a crate as time for a good nap. Please note, however, that the dog's crate should be a safe place that they go willingly and never used as a punishment "time out," and you should never force them in there if you are angry after they've misbehaved.
As we briefly touched on, aggression with other dogs is a serious behavioral issue, and most veterinarians will recommend that, at that point, you seek out some professional advice from an experienced trainer. As dog owners, we sometimes give them the wrong messages. We’ll see another dog across the street, and we'll get all anxious ourselves, and we'll pull on our dog, or our voices change, and we sound like there's a problem. What we should have done was pretend we didn't see the dog, distract our own dog with food and be happy. And then they'll associate, "I saw a dog across the street with my owners, I'm going to get food, and we're going to go the other way."
Jumping up on people is another behavior that you'll want to remedy if it gets out of control, as let’s face it—no one wants to come to your house for a visit and get knocked down by your giant Labrador. You have to think of it from the dog’s perspective. What are they getting out of it? They’re getting social interaction and if you’re yelling, “Get down,” or the like, you’re encouraging the behavior. One thing to do is to remember that coming home can't be exciting. If we don't get excited to see our dog, they will be less likely to start that behavior. Come in calmly, ignoring the dog until they're willing to offer a sit or engage in other calm behavior. Reinforce the behavior that you want. So if your dog tries to jump, you ignore them, and then when they sit, it’s time for treats!
Absolutely. That's an essential thing to remember, especially if a behavior problem comes up relatively suddenly with no apparent cause. We want to check the dog out and make sure there's nothing else going on. Common things that we would see causing significant behavior changes would be neurologic problems and sometimes pain. That can be arthritic pain or it can be gas pain. As dogs get older, cognitive decline can play a role in behavior changes as well, and all of those things are things that we want to rule out before we start to come up with a behavior management plan because those could be significant factors.
Other behaviors you might see at home that could indicate your dog is sick are:
- A dog scooting across the carpet, which could be anxiety, full anal sacs, excessive grooming, or an infection with parasites
- A dog walking in circles or tilting their head, which could a sign of neurologic issues or infections
- A dog urinating in the house, which could indicate stress or a sign of a urinary infection
The most common behavior changes we see with sick animals are they're reclusive, they like they stay asleep, they don’t come out with the rest of the family, they don’t greet you at the door, and they’re not eating or drinking. When an animal eats parts of their food or none of it at all, that's a significant sign that something's not right. When your dog changes their behavior suddenly, call your veterinarian to get them a thorough exam.
This is a slightly controversial topic for some people, but most veterinarians will tell you that the most important thing to do is to find a positive reinforcement-based trainer. There is no room in any situation for punishment-based training. It can be a little bit hard to tell sometimes when you're evaluating a trainer on their website what their training methods are. One thing to watch out for and avoid would be one that uses what's called an e-collar, which is essentially a shock or vibration collar.
You also want to steer clear of anyone who's calling themselves a balanced trainer. In most of these situations, they use aversive training (meaning uncomfortable or scary negative reinforcement of behaviors). There’s a lot of data out there that says that not only do these techniques not work long term, but they can worsen behavior issues. Instead, look for positive reinforcement, and if you're not sure, contact them. Ask for references, what their methods are, and always check in with your veterinarian if you're not sure.
That's an ongoing discussion. Much of it comes down to figuring out how much this behavior affects either you or your dog's quality of life. In some situations, behaviors are particular to triggers. Some dogs are wonderful in their house and very happy, but it becomes an issue when they go out and see another dog. In those situations in which a dog is stressed, we sometimes use short-term medications. Or when we have situational issues, situational medications can be helpful, but for those dogs that are anxious on a daily basis, that's an awful way to live. Nobody wants to be scared and worried all the time. And some dogs have excessive fears about thunderstorms, fireworks, and other loud noises. Those are situations in which trying some anti-anxiety medications for long-term use can make a quality of life difference. There are pros and cons to the different medications and when we would use them, so that's something you always want to discuss with your veterinarian and a behavioral consultant to figure out what's the best choice for your pet.
The first part of any consultation will be a physical exam to ensure there are no underlying health issues. For example, if your dog is urinating, we will palpate the abdomen, which means we feel through the abdomen for any masses or abnormal changes. We'll collect a urine sample to check for signs of crystals, stone formation, and infections. If we rule out a medical cause, we could be left with a behavior issue, and at that point, we would either direct you to a certified behaviorist, or we may be able to help with those questions ourselves.
You can consult the AAHA's canine and feline behavior management guidelines for further information. If you have other questions about dog behavior, reach out to your veterinarian. If you don't have one yet, we can help you find a local veterinarian!