Practical Management Tips For Dogs With Behavioral Issues

What one should do immediately to help with behavior problems

Posted Jan 15, 2015

By Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM

Many owners have difficulty either recognizing or acknowledging their dog’s behavior issues.  This may be related to the social stigma that comes from owning a dog with behavior problems.  The common misconception being that when a dog misbehaves they are being spiteful, attempting to show you who’s the boss.  Many of the behavior problems that are exhibited are fear or anxiety related.  It is important when you own a dog to learn about our dog’s way of communicating via body postures and signaling.  If everyone can learn to “read” their dogs better they can better prevent, manage and treat their dog’s behavior issues.

Once owners recognize their pets have behavioral issues it is really important to realize that their lives will be different from now on.  Some owners can adapt their lifestyles to suit their dogs’ needs.  Some owners continually try to subject their pets to constant exposure of stressful situations in attempts to socialize them.  Most often these attempts end in failure and the pets’ behavior issue deteriorates even more.  Some people may feel embarrassed or are harassed by others when their dogs have been reactive or behaved inappropriately.  There is no need to hide your head in shame.  There are many resources available to you.  When you have a dog exhibiting behavior issues, it is so important to have your dog’s mental and physical health evaluated first by your local veterinarian.  Then seek the help of animal behavior professionals, such as veterinary behaviorists, certified animal behaviorists and certified dog trainers, as soon as you can.  You may not realize it but the dog owners also need to emotional support while working their dog through their behavioral issues. 

If you are unable to seek help right away, here are a few management tools: 

1)     Avoid the use of harsh physical and verbal punishment - Harsh corrections exacerbates a dog’s fear and anxiety.  It can potentially escalate a dog’s aggressive behavior towards the owner if it has owner directed aggression issues.  Never pin a dog down until it calms down.  How would you like to be physically restrained or placed in a straightjacket when you are faced with your fears or you are having a panic attack?  The dog can also learn to associate the owner behavior with being unpredictable which may turn add to its anxiety and fear.  A recent client physically restrained one of his dogs in this manner.  The dog then started snapping at the owner when the owner touched him to physically move him or when the dog was in a situation of high arousal such as barking at another dog.

2)    Use positive reinforcement – Treats and praise can be used to reinforce a dog when it is behaving appropriately.  It should be used in behavior modification exercises to teach your dog not to be afraid and stressed when exposed to the challenging situations.  With systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning, you can teach your dog some coping skills and increase his confidence

3)    Avoidance of fear provoking situations - When you have a pet that has fear-related or anxiety-based disorders, it is really important to reduce their exposure to the people, animals, objects and situation that stress them out.  When you avoid those particular stimuli, the pet tends to remain calmer and more manageable.  When a dog is exposed to highly stressful situations, sometimes the dog can cope but they may eventually reach their breaking point.  When that happens, you typically see a dog that is reactive, lunging, barking, growling, snapping or biting.  However some dogs may just withdraw from the world, freeze or hide.  When this occurs, there is no salvaging the situation, it is best to remove the dog.  Each time the dog is exposed to a situation in which he becomes fearful, anxious or aggressive, the dog learns to associate the cues with the negative experiences.  So that in subsequent exposures, your dog’s undesirable behavior appears to escalate.  

4)    Situational awareness – Not only do owners of dogs with special needs have to monitor and avoid exposing their dogs to certain situations, they also need to be aware of other people and their dogs.  Pay attention and do not rely on other dog owners to avoid walking past you, even though your dog may be barking and lunging at the end of their leash.  Turn around and walk away, find an object to provide a visual barrier or you can pre-emptively tell the person to stop.  Although many cities have leash laws, there is a portion of owners that never place their dogs on leash.  Their dogs may be friendly but they are not socially conscious of other people and their dogs.  It is alright to tell the other people to place their dogs on leash.  Be prepared to toss treats towards the dog approaching off leash and quickly make a U-turn with your dog to avoid the negative encounter.

5)    Be an advocate for your pet - I have known many owners that are too shy or embarrassed to tell other people to not approach or pet their dog.  This often occurs when owners have pets that sometimes accepts petting and sometimes exhibits aggressive behavior while being petted.  It’s alright to say “No!” when people ask to pet your dog.  Dogs are not public property and people should not assume all dogs want their attention.  We certainly do not assume that all children want to be picked up, kissed on the face and have their cheeks pinched.  We should offer the same respect to our pets.  Often times when my clients decline a person’s request to pet their dog with the explanation that their pet is shy or doesn’t like people, the other person counters with “all dogs like me” and proceed to come closer with their hands outstretched.  People who really know dogs should be able to read the dog’s body language and understand when a dog does not want to interact with them.  It is best to avoid these people even if you have to be rude and abrupt with them.  Just turn around and walk away.

It would be a disservice to both owners and pets if only management of their pets issues is mentioned.  A comprehensive behavior treatment plan involves many parts with potentially multiple steps in each part.  Management, behavior modification exercises and possible medication options all work together to provide the best treatment for a pet with behavior issues.  Please consult with a professional if you and your pet need help.  You are not alone in dealing with your pet’s problem.  There is a whole community waiting to assist you.

Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM, DACVB

All Creatures Behavior Counseling

Kirkland, WA