Intro to Behavior Issues in Dogs

Your Dog & You

Even puppies may have some behavior issues and without a doubt, most older dogs do as well. When you raise your dog from a tiny puppy, it is usually pretty easy to recognize behavior problems early on and nip them in the bud easily before they become a real problem. I will discuss puppy training in another article, as the techniques for puppies are somewhat different from those with older dogs.

Sometimes, however, an older dog enters your home, either through an adoption or rescue or other situation, and they come with a behavior problem or two. These issues may not be immediately obvious and often are overlooked by well meaning owners who want to give their new pet a chance to settle in before tackling therapy or training for behavior issues. While this may seem like a good approach, this actually reinforces their negative behavior in their new home. It is much more favorable to tackle behavior issues immediately on Day 1, so the new dog associates this new positive and healthy behavior with their new loving home, and the change comes much more easily and quickly this way. Even if you have an older dog who has been displaying behavior problems for a long time, don’t fret! It will just take a little more patience to overcome their issues but it is not in any way impossible to rehabilitate any dog, in my opinion. Each dog is a unique animal with a unique history, and will have unique training and therapy needs. Once we determine their history (the root of the problem), personality type (which technique to use for their particular personality) and their motivation (do anything for treats, or prefers affection and gentle persuasion), it is a simple matter of setting up a training or therapy routine and sticking to it. Some issues are harder than others to overcome, some take longer than others but none are lost causes.

The most important thing to remember is that no matter how much we love our dogs, think of them as part of the family and otherwise “humanize” them, when it comes to therapy and training we must remember that our furry children are actually canines and if we approach their therapy as dogs and not humans, it will go much faster and smoother. Dogs live “in the moment”, whereas people do not. We tend to live from the past to the future and, for the most part, ignore the “here and now”. We think of what happened in our past, how it made us feel, how that affects us today and what we are going to do tomorrow, next week, next year and so on. Dogs don’t do this. They know what happened to them in the past and they move on as quickly as they can. They aren’t concerned with the future because the HERE AND NOW is all that matters.

Sure, a dog that has been abused before will carry some baggage: they may be afraid or untrusting of a particular trait that they relate to with negative experiences (i.e.; dogs afraid of men after being hit by a man, dogs being afraid of people with deep voices after being yelled at, dogs afraid of kennels after being in a puppy mill that kept them in cages all of the time, etc.), they may display food aggression, possessive behavior or sleep aggression. All of these are behavior problems that can be worked through with time, patience and skilled guidance.

Always remember that each behavior problem has a mirror opposite wanted behavior! Common sense can help with determining how to help your dog with their issues, as I have gone over in my post about my “General Technique” training.

Anxiety and fear disorders are just as important and debilitating in dogs as they are in humans. Luckily, dogs are usually easier to work with and help to overcome their anxiety than us humans are. The sources of canine anxiety are many and varied. They can range from past traumatic experiences to nervous energy. It will help a lot if you can determine the source of your pet’s anxiety, but most cases of anxiety are nervous energy. This happens when your dog has more energy than they can release. This is generally easy to solve simply by making sure that your dog is completely tired out during each exercise time, and making sure they are getting enough exercise times throughout the day. Being in a fearful state is not natural for a dog, nor is it healthy for them (or us!). Dealing with this can be trying and can take a long time, so pack plenty of patience and attentiveness, as anxiety and fearful behavior is one of the tougher issues.

Symptoms of canine anxiety and fear

  • Pacing
  • Excessive barking
  • Salivating
  • Shivering (when not cold)
  • Tail tucked down, Ears back/down
  • Appears to be always looking around nervously
  • Startles easily
  • Jumps at nearby sounds or movements
  • Yelps when touched (gently and not caused by a medical condition)
  • Yelps/growls/snaps when approached gently
  • Yelps/growls/snaps when touched while sleeping (sleep anxiety)
  • Paces/barks/destructive behavior/marking behavior when left alone (separation anxiety)

Many times when people encounter these issues in their dogs, they have the immediate urge to console their dog, to pet them and try to let them know that everything is alright. While this may work for humans, it is the exact wrong thing to do with a dog and can, at times, result in your beloved dog biting you out of fear or confusion. What an anxious or fearful dog needs is gentle but firm leadership. Your corrections shouldn’t be too loud, as this can incite more fear or anxiety, but they should be gently corrected and reminded that this behavior is not acceptable. You may want to work on this with a collar and leash on your dog, with the collar positioned at the top of the neck, close to the head and behind the ears. This will allow you to have the most control over the placement of their head (and avoid bites), and also allow you to gently reprimand them by a quick, gentle tug on the leash rather than using your hands. The tug on the leash will take them off guard, in a way, which will break their cycle of fear for a moment. In this moment, you can redirect them to something else like a training reminder or a gentle urge to come get a treat. The simple act of overcoming a moment of fear to come get a treat is enough work to warrant the reward anyway.  Fearful dogs need to be allowed to work through their fear, but in a safe and controlled way. They could rebel against their leash, which will wear them out and they will learn to accept the situation without fear because they rebelled against it and nothing bad happened. They could overcome their fear to get a reward that is enticing enough to them. They could just need some time and patience to work up the courage to overcome their fear. This is most common is abused animals or neglected animals who aren’t used to human contact. Patience is the key, and gentle persuasion.

Sleep anxiety or sleep aggression is also a fear response and is not in any way natural for a dog to display. Dogs are pack animals. That means that they eat together, they sleep together and they work as a team to accomplish goals. When a pack sleeps together, they are always roused during sleep. They are being stepped on, they are stepping on others, they are being jostled and otherwise cuddled/snuggled/bothered while they sleep. They learn when they are young puppies to deal with it and before they are weaned, they are able to sleep just fine with other animals all around them, bothering and otherwise messing with them while they sleep. A dog who displays yelping/snapping/growling when they are disturbed while they sleep is showing that they are having trouble with trusting their situation and surroundings. They don’t feel completely safe and therefore they awake in a defensive way when they are roused from slumber. While some pet owners may not view this as a big problem and are content to just “let a sleeping dog lie”, this could come back to bite them when a young family member or friend’s child is nearby and gets bitten when they disturb the sleeping dog. It is always best to help a dog to overcome their fearful behaviors, as this leads to a happier, more balanced life for the animal. After all, we all want our dogs to be happy and live a full, balanced life and the sleep/wake cycle is a part of that. Unfortunately, this is not a behavior that you can really do much therapy on other than just desensitizing the dog to being disturbed when they sleep. They WILL learn that they aren’t in danger, they don’t have to defend themselves, and they are completely safe with you. It will just take some time. Start waking them up every chance you get. You might want to start out with something that they aren’t going to hurt and won’t hurt themselves on, like a long stuffed toy or a bully stick. Poke them gently, slide it along beside them, wriggle it by their ears, just don’t get in a position to get yourself bit. After time, they will figure out that they are in absolutely no danger and that particular behavior will improve with time and your patient poking and prodding.

Anxious behavior is caused by a lack of exercise most of the time, but can sometimes be caused by unexpected loud sounds, a new environment or other situations out of our control. In these types of situations, I find it is best to put a decently length leash on them and hold the leash until they calm down. Make sure that you are calm or they will become more anxious and the situation could skyrocket from there. I have even been known to sit down and put the wrist-wrap of the leash around my ankle. The dog isn’t able to stray too far away, is under supervision during their stressful time, and my ankle isn’t relaying any heightened emotions to the animal like my hands can (holding the leash tightly, etc). I know it probably sounds silly but give it a try.

Separation anxiety is actually a learned behavior in most cases, and can be unlearned through patient therapy. Your pet has learned that either if they make enough of a ruckus, you will return and give them affection OR that you are gone and they aren’t sure when or if you will return, which sends them into an anxious frenzy. To start working on this issue, make sure that your comings and goings are a standard routine. No big long goodbyes, no huge and excited welcome home times. Just walk out and walk back in. Being greeted at the door is fine and very enjoyable, but make sure that the excitement level is not too high. A calm, “welcome home, I missed you!” is much better than an excited “Oh my goodness! I thought you would be gone forever and I am SSOOOOOOOO happy you came back home!”. This can be accomplished by modifying their learned behavior slowly. Walk out the door (or crate them if the anxiety is from a crate) and leave their immediate area. Wait for a few minutes and return. Make it as unexciting as possible. Then do it again, and repeat until they are completely calm every time. Then increase the time you are out of sight, from 3 minutes to 5, then to 10, and so on until you can leave them for as long as you may need without them having anxiety over it.

With patience, gentle guidance and leadership, your pet can overcome their behavior problems. It doesn’t happen overnight, though there is a chance that you can see improvement after just one day. Don’t give up and don’t take any frustrations out on your beloved pet. If you start getting frustrated, then it is time for you to take a step back, deep breaths and remind yourself that they can’t help their behavior on their own. They need your help and your love. When they are calm, give them all the love that they can handle! When they are anxious or fearful, give them the help that they need.

The information provided on this site is very generalized and while the techniques will work fine for the majority of dogs, some dogs may be heavily traumatized and require more intensive therapy. Please contact me or another dog behavior professional for one-on-one help with those particular cases! This site contains information that is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical issues. All information on this site is written my Kristen Camp and is copyright! Pingbacks are welcome, reposting of this information is only allowed with specific written permission.