A behavioural problem is actually any behaviour displayed by a dog whom co-inhabitants think of a problem! Let’s see how to identify behavioural problems in dogs and why they occur.
Pet parents obviously differ in how much they endure diverse behaviours in their pets. So what several people consider a ‘problem’, others are pretty pleased to live with. Hence, behaviour problems can vary from innocuous acts like dogs jumping up to welcome their pet parents as they return, to acute forms of aggression, or behaviours that appear ‘hallucinatory’ such as snapping at imaginary flies. The expression ‘behaviour problem’ includes a broad range of problems from situations where dogs have not been socialised on how to respond to a particular stimulus, to behaviours which are connected to medical problems.
Training vs behavioural problems
As pet parents, it is important that we recognise training/obedience problems and able to differentiate between them and behavioural problems. As a rule, if your pet shows obedience schooling problems such as pulling on the leash or refusing to come when called, then it would be a training problem. The severity of the disobedience and our tolerance levels sometimes make us believe that it could be a behavioural problem, but it is not.
A behavioural problem on the other hand can be recognised by the pattern. Is it repetitive? Does the dog act predictably react in a certain situation? If your dog exhibits actions such as aggression, withdrawal from or evading particular sounds or events, excessive barking or destruction when left alone, then it is a behavioural problem. These behaviours are usually signs that your pet is in a negative emotional state (such as anxiety or fear) in certain situations.
Identifying behavioural problems
Having said that, what all pet parents need is to understand that adaptation takes time, particularly for young pets or older dogs in new situations. We should not get too anxious easily. Basic common sense socialising usually alleviates such problems. What should worry you is if the behaviour is repetitive over a long time or if the problem is new in a dog who was otherwise fine in the same situation.
Rule out medical issues: The first thing you do when you identify a behavioural problem in your dog is to take him to a veterinarian. Behavioural changes can be an indication of a medical problem. There are a plethora of diverse conditions that first appear as noticeable ‘behaviour problems’ but which turn out to be signs of disease. For example, neurological disease in the brain or spinal cord, swelling of the bladder, hormonal disorders or malfunctioning of the liver can all first become noticeable as behavioural changes. Also, medical symptoms occasionally influence the development of behaviour even where they are not the sole cause of the problem. For example, a painful ear may be the reason behind a hostile reaction to petting on the head. Medical symptoms can only be diagnosed by a vet, and may require additional tests to recognise the precise disorder. Because many of these conditions are very serious, it is important that your vet sees your dog first so that any necessary treatment is started as soon as possible.
Breed-specific …No! Very often I am asked if these problems like aggression are more prevalent in certain breeds. Well, the answer is NO – every dog in a certain breed will not show this problem. And definitely, you will see it in other breeds too. However, it must be said that in an abusive environment more dogs of certain breeds WILL react aggressively as compared to other breeds.
Age-related: Another factor that brings in the onset of behavioural problems is age. Like people, old dogs get cranky, are impatient and need our love. As mentioned earlier, a medical check up could reveal the cause of the irritability. Even without that as dogs age, the likelihood of a behavioural problem increases. After a certain age, training and socialisation problems are over. Any problems emerging after five years of age usually have a deep rooted basis and would most probably be behavioural issues.
Here are few tips to help you minimise the possibility of behavioural problems in your dog:
Socialisation: Socialise your puppy from a very young age. Expose him to as many sounds, sights, situations as you can. This will help prevent fear from sounds/surfaces and new situations at a later age.
Managing separation anxiety: Teach him to spend some alone time in his kennel/crate every day. Increase the time gradually till he is able to stay in the crate for a couple of hours every day, irrespective of whether any one is at home or not. This will help prevent separation anxiety and incessant barking when he gets older.
Be the pack leader: Let him know who is the head of the house by being firm, not harsh. The dog has to realise his place in the hierarchy of the family. He needs this structure for him to function better. This will be a big step in preventing territorial aggression and other forms of aggression stemming out of a misplaced sense of ownership.
Handling aggression: Teach him to accept and permit your interrupting him when he eats. Take away the bowl mid meal and praise him for waiting. Any sort of aggression should be reprimanded. This will prevent a whole lot of aggression problems as he matures.
Basic obedience: Train him basic obedience at the right age using positive reinforcement methods. Having a trained dog is not about a dog who follows your commands. More importantly it is about having a dog you can communicate to and who understands you.
Never reward undesired behaviour: Unknowingly parents reward unwanted behaviour by sounding more caring/loving when the pet displays such behaviour or rushing to the dog to pacify him. Such reactions encourage the dog mistakenly and create lifelong behaviour problems.
Most times, behavioural problems in dogs are due to silly mistakes committed by pet parents. Be smart and bring up your pet responsibly.
(Philip A Butt is CEO and Chief Trainer at Commando Kennels (P) Ltd, Hyderabad. He is also Certified Dog Trainer from AES, UK; Certified Detection Dog Instructor, Germany, Certified Protecting Dog Instructor, Germany and Show Secretary of the HyCan Dog Show).