It’s always frustrating when your dog develops behaviors that you find problematic. These dog behavior issues can stress the relationship you have with your pet and, if mismanaged, may easily spiral out of control.
However, once you examine many common issues, they start to make a whole lot more sense. Does your terrier dig holes in the yard when he’s bored? That’s probably because he was bred to tenaciously hunt prey in underground burrows. Does your shepherd growl at strangers? Well, in the past, it was essential for her to keep her wits about her and protect her flock from danger.
We’ve all heard it before: the first step to finding a solution to dog behavior is understanding the root of the problem. Taking the time to learn a bit about the dog psyche may just make your training sessions run a bit more smoothly.
The ABCs of Behavior Analysis
This bit of jargon may sound familiar from the field of psychology. The letters refer to antecedent, behavior, and consequence.
The antecedent comes before the behavior, some sort of stimulus that leads to the behavior itself. The behavior, of course, is how the dog reacts to stimuli and the environment in a certain moment. Finally, the consequence refers to the effect of the behavior.
As an owner, it is important to understand your role in these phases as well as the cause-and-effect nature of behavior. Dogs don’t act spontaneously, they act for some reason, whether you understand it or not.
You can affect the antecedent environment, which may determine whether or not a dog behavior occurs. For instance, maybe you make sure to exercise your dog daily, decreasing his energy and making him less likely to chase the cat. You can also cover your windows with a film that prevents your dog from seeing (and barking at) the squirrels outside.
You can also affect the consequence of a behavior, which will affect how that behavior occurs next time. For instance, if you give your dog a treat when he sits after you’ve asked him to, he may be more likely to sit the next time you request it.
Changing Behaviors: Operant Conditioning
Here we borrow more from psychology. But it boils down to some basic lessons about behavioral changes that can be applied to all kinds of different minds (including your pup’s).
There are four core ways to modify behavior. You’ve probably heard of positive and negative reinforcement. The former offers something pleasant to encourage a behavior while the latter removes something unpleasant. Likewise, there are positive and negative forms of punishment. Positive punishment adds some unpleasant to discourage a behavior and negative punishment removes something pleasant to the same effect.
All of these methods can be an effective way to modify behavior. Indeed, trainers argue over which combinations work best. However, as a dog owner, it’s easiest (and most fun) to concentrate primarily on one technique: positive reinforcement. This will set you up to encourage behavior that you like and strengthen your relationship with your dog. Instead of manufacturing a relationship where you are scary to your pet, you’ll be setting yourself up to be a source of joy for your animal.
WTF? (What’s the Function)
No, no, this isn’t an angry response to your dog jumping on guests. It actually stands for “What’s the Function?” This is essential to understand when you’re examining your dog’s behavior.
If you want to change a dog behavior, make sure to ask why this is happening.
For instance, your dog has been jumping out of his fence. You know he’s a hunting breed, and there are likely lots of creatures that excite him. So, he jumps out of the fence in order to chase things (which he was bred to do) and get out his energy.
Perhaps you can’t get rid of that innate desire to chase, but you can provide alternative outlets for his energy. That way, some other behavior like chasing a ball can fill the same function as jumping the fence and reduce bad dog behavior.
Common Behavior Problems
Now that you understand a little more doggie psychology, let’s examine some common behavioral issues.
Dogs may bark for a variety of reasons. Remember to ask WTF (what the function) for your specific dog. Some may bark out of loneliness when left by themselves. Others may bark at strangers, either to scare them away or alert you to the problem. Still, some others may simply be bored.
Answering this question is the first step in correcting the behavior.
When addressing the underlying issue, avoid negative methods like bark collars. These can be stressful for your pet.
Instead, reduce stimulus that might get your dog going. Keep the blinds shut, for instance, if there’s a lot of activity outside. Toys and treats may help distract your dog and can even decrease stress.
There are two main ways to deal with chewing. You can either remove tempting items or offer safer alternatives. This may mean confining your dog to a smaller area with a pet gate, especially while you’re away from home.
Realize that chewing, like barking, may stem from multiple deeper issues. Perhaps your dog is anxious and uses chewing as a nervous tick. Or, maybe he has a lot of pent up energy. Providing your dog more playtime and opportunities to exercise can be effective solutions, depending on your WTF (what the function) analysis.
Unfortunately, dogs weren’t bred to share, especially with those outside their pack. This can cause big problems with new friends especially.
First and foremost, make sure that all your dog’s needs are being met. This includes things like exercise, nutrition, and mental health. Your dog may have trouble sharing if he’s stressed out about food. Make sure to remain calm and avoid using negative reinforcement, which may make the problem worse.
Hoarding can be tricky, especially around dinnertime. Remember to keep yourself and your pet safe and use a certified behavioral consultant if you have any doubts.
Tips to Remember
The truth is, there’s no end-all article that you’ll read and suddenly fix all of your dog’s problems. In fact, that’s the whole point. Understanding why things are happening will help you go beyond all the generic advice out there and really start to figure out your pet.
That doesn’t mean you need to do it alone. If you’re struggling, reach out to professionals. Trainers have tons of experience with troubleshooting and can be a great aid when you’re patience is running thin.
Remember that dogs are complex beings and even man’s best friend needs a psychologist sometimes.