Abnormal Dog Behaviors: Correcting Canine Behavior Problems


By Lorie Huston For Pet Health Examiner

Most dog owners would prefer their canine companions to be well-behaved and well-trained. However, for some dogs, that seems like a daunting task.

Helping dogs with abnormal behaviors

What can the dog owner whose dog does not display normal or desirable canine behaviors do about the situation? In some cases, the answer is easy. In other cases, the solution may be more difficult.

Adequate exercise is a must for any dog. Dogs which receive a proper degree of exercise are less likely to display bad behaviors simply because they have less energy to invest in such behaviors.

Proper obedience training is a necessity for any dog. Basic commands (“sit”, “stay”, “come”) are generally fairly easy to teach. Training techniques should include generous rewards for desirable behaviors and avoid punishment.

Once a dog is responsive to basic commands, it is often possible for the owner to control other undesirable behaviors by substituting a more desirable behavior. For instance, if the dog is barking excessively at the door when the doorbell rings, the owner may command the dog to “sit” and then “stay” and reward the dog for the behavior. By doing this consistently, the dog will eventually learn to go to the door and sit instead of running to the door and barking excessively.

Dealing with fearful dogs

The first step in dealing with dogs which are fearful is to be able to recognize the signs of fear. The fearful dog may appear timid. The ears will usually be back or down as opposed to being upright or forward. Fearful dogs may yawn, lick their lips, appear to trying to look everywhere at once (i.e. seem to be overvigilant), or even appear to be moving very slowly. Keep in mind that some dogs will growl or even act in an aggressive manner when frightened.

Identifying the source of the dog’s fear is important. Introducing the dog to the fearful environment or situation slowly in steps which do not elicit fear is even more important, though this may not be possible in all situations. Distracting the dog with a favorite treat or toy can help in these situations also.

Pet owners also need to be wary of inadvertently reinforcing the dog’s fear. For most owners, an attempt to calm the dog during a fearful episode is instinctive and usually includes petting and talking soothingly to the dog. However, what these behaviors tell the dog is that there is something to fear and their fear may actually escalate.

Dog appeasing hormone (DAP®) collars can be used to calm fearful dogs and are especially useful for mild to moderate phobias. For more severe phobias, anxiolytic medications which calm the dog may be necessary during times of intense fear.

Dealing with aggressive dogs

For dogs displaying aggressive tendencies, the trigger for the aggression should be identified and avoided, if at all possible, until the dog can be properly trained to approach or accept the trigger event without becoming aggressive. If it is not possible to avoid the trigger and the dog begins to behave in an aggressive fashion, he should be removed from the situation calmly and quickly, without being punished or reprimanded. Remember that it is not possible to teach a dog which is in an over-excited condition.

The help of an experienced dog trainer or veterinary behavioral specialist may be necessary in these cases. However, pet owners should avoid trainers who practice confrontational, punishment-based techniques and seek trainers or behavioral specialists experienced in training dogs with positive reinforcement techniques. Confrontation and punishment is likely to simply suppress the behavior without actually replacing the behavioral with an alternative desirable behavior and may even cause the dog to become more aggressive and perhaps even dangerous.

The use of drugs such as Reconcile® or Clomicalm® are controversial in aggressive dogs but are prescribed in some cases.

Dealing with dogs suffering from separation anxiety

Dogs with separation anxiety may become quite nervous and anxious when the owner leaves the home. When left alone in the home, these dogs may whine or bark excessively, may become destructive, or may urinate or defecate within the house.

Counter-conditioning these dogs can be difficult and may require the help of a behavior expert. The goal is to provide the dog with a sense of independence by encouraging the dog to be calm, quiet and comfortable even in the absence of the owner. Attention seeking behavior should be discouraged and owners should attempt to leave the home with as little fanfare as possible.

When returning home, owners should make every attempt to ignore the dog until the dog has calmed. Only once the dog is calm and quiet should the owner approach the dog and reward the behavior.

In some cases, medications such as Reconcile® or Clomicalm® may be necessary to aid in calming the dog so that he can learn new behaviors which are appropriate.

Converting dogs with behavior problems into well-behaved dogs

With an understanding of why the dog is exhibiting the undesirable behavior and the implementation of proper training measures, it is possible to convert a dog with behavior problems to a well-behaved dog.

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