Behavior Problems in Dogs

Michael Forney VCA Rancho Mirage Animal Hospital

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These 10 behavior problems may have an underlying medical cause

This article addresses the behavioral motivation for common problems in dogs, why they may occur, and how we can work to resolve them. However, the majority if not all behaviors can also have an underlying medical cause. This is more likely in an older pet that develops a new behavior that was not previously present. Therefore, if the dog or cat you have owned for several years starts demonstrating one of these new behaviors, you should consult with your veterinarian to see if there is a potential underlying disease that should be ruled out.

Aggression: Aggression is one of the more difficult behavior problems to tackle. Not only do we have to keep the animal’s welfare in mind, but we also need to consider the safety of the people and other animals with which the aggressive dog or cat interacts.

The most common reason an animal behaves aggressively towards humans is fear. Dogs and cats have a repertoire of signs they will show when fearful (see Anxiety). When these signs are not perceived or (more often) ignored by humans, the pet may escalate to more aggressive displays to try and keep the fearful stimulus away. Such displays can include hissing, growling, barking, snarling, scratching, lunging, and biting.

Aggression between animals can occur for a number of reasons, including territoriality, hierarchy, fear, predatory, hormonal and others. Occasionally aggression can have a medical cause, including diseases of the nervous or endocrine systems or even simply pain, which will increase a patient’s irritability.

I would recommend speaking with a professional if you have a dog or cat that is behaving aggressively.

Destructive Behaviors: Similar to cats, dogs have natural behaviors, such as digging and chewing, in which they need to engage. Depending on the dog breed, some of these behaviors may be more hardwired (think Terriers who were bred to dig for vermin). So in part, owners should anticipate their dogs’ needs before they become a problem. Destructive behaviors are usually the sign of a bored dog. What can owners do for a bored dog? Plenty! Exercise (walks, dog parks, play dates, running around the backyard, swimming), chew toys (there are literally hundreds of toys for dogs, some more advanced than others), training sessions (puppies aren’t the only ones who benefit from learning), doggy day care, and many more. If you provide alternative activities for your pup, you will not only keep your house from ruin, you will also have a happy, engaged pup.

Scratching Furniture: This is a common problem of cat owners, and probably the reason why declawed cats are the fastest to be adopted out of animal shelters. Owners are understandably frustrated when Mittens tears apart their expensive couch or roughs up their favorite piece of furniture. However, I think many owners do not realize that scratching is a NATURAL feline behavior. Meaning this is something cats do in the wild. It’s how they communicate to each other. Cats naturally will scratch trees or other surfaces in the wild to mark territory or convey signals to other cats. Therefore, we humans should expect that cats have an innate need to scratch; it’s instinctual.

So what do we do about it? Historically many cats were “declawed” by veterinarians as one solution to stop this problem. However, many owners are not properly educated as to what this procedure entails. “Declawing” is a surgical procedure where the first digits of a cat are removed surgically along with the actual claw. As with any surgery, this procedure will involve pain, potential complications, and recovery. It is not quite as benign as some owners may perceive it to be. It is a procedure that fewer and fewer veterinarians will perform and is actually illegal in New York State.

Therefore, I always recommend options that both preserve the owner’s furniture and Fluffy’s natural behavior. Anyone with a cat should invest in a variety of scratching posts. They are made with various substrates (again, cats can have preferences for what materials they like to scratch). Cats may also have individual preferences for vertical or horizontal surfaces. Owners should place them in locations where they spend a lot of time—near the couch, the bed, etc. Cats tend to scratch in places they view as desirable (and that is often where we like to hang out!). There are also pheromone products that can help entice cats to scratch in specified locations.

Jumping: Jumping can be quite a difficult behavior problem to resolve (my own dog Gertrude is an exuberant greeter). It can be hard to get rid of the behavior, because not only do you have to work on training the dog, you have to work on training everybody else. This means anyone who comes into contact with your dog needs to respect that you are training Max or Ginger, and you need them to not reinforce the jumping behavior.

How does this work? Many dogs jump primarily when they are first greeting their owner, strangers, or whomever, because dogs greet each other face to face. They want to be at our level to say “hello.” Sometimes this can develop into an attention- seeking behavior and dogs may continue to jump at other times, especially if excited. Therefore, these dogs need quiet and calm greetings from all parties. You need to completely ignore the jumping to not reinforce it—this can be in the form of turning around, walking away, or completely leaving the room—until the dog learns that the only time he gets attention or greeting is when all four paws are on the floor. Some dogs can be quite persistent, hence the importance of teaching all the human beings who meet your dog to not address, play with or reinforce their jumping behavior (regardless of how cute and friendly they are).

Barking: Clearly, this problem only affects dogs and not our feline friends (although cat owners may complain about excessive meowing). A good number of owners will complain about their dogs barking and ask what they can do to make it stop. My question is—why is your dog barking in the first place? As with any behavioral issue, we need to understand the motivation behind a behavior in order to evaluate how to address it.

Some dogs bark to defend their territory. Do you notice Fido barking when strangers come to the house? There may be a component of territoriality. Fido may also be barking out of fear. Maybe he does not like strangers—not all dogs (or cats) do. Maybe he is just excited. Some dogs bark because they are happy. These are just some motivations a dog may have to vocalize. So what can you do about it?

Depending on the motivation, you will need a different approach. Some of the strategy will include management—meaning you may need to make changes to the set-up of your house (e.g., turning off the doorbell or telling your guests not to knock, which can be triggers), having treats ready for Fido when strangers come to visit to help him learn to not be fearful, or potentially keeping him in another room (sometimes dogs can be over the threshold and therefore unable to learn when there is too strong of a stimulus). If Bella barks at dogs passing by, maybe closing the windows is the simplest solution. Noise-cancelling white noise or classical music may be an easy fix if a particular sound prompts your pup to wail incessantly.

Yelling at your dog or telling her “No” when she barks will not resolve the problem (think of someone yelling at you when you’re already afraid—not very helpful). Additionally, some dogs bark for attention and if you’re yelling at them it will only reinforce the behavior. If the problem is more difficult or unmanageable, talk to your veterinarian or a trainer that uses positive reinforcement methods to help you troubleshoot.

Accidents in the House: Anyone with animals has had to clean up a mess or two in the house. Accidents happen. Of course they are to be expected with puppies with small bladders that may still be learning to eliminate outside. However, no one loves scrubbing the carpet, and sometimes the accidents happen more frequently than once or twice.

If that’s your case, you may be at your wit’s end. What can you do? First, it is always a good idea to rule out a medical cause, especially if Ginger used to be perfectly house-trained and only recently started urinating on the rug. A great number of diseases can cause a pet to have accidents in the house, ranging from urinary tract infections to kidney disease to diabetes and many more. Some helpful clues to report to your veterinarian include frequency, volume of urine, when the episodes occur, change in water intake, and appearance.

Multiple cats? Remember to keep their individual litter boxes in different rooms.

Multiple cats? Remember to keep their individual litter boxes in different rooms.»

Once medical causes are ruled out, we have behavioral reasons to cross off our list. Is one of your three cats peeing outside of the litter box? For our feline friends, we need to be sure to have the appropriate number of litter boxes (the rule being N + 1, where N = # of cats) located in different rooms of the house to prevent competition for the litter box. You also want to make sure the litter boxes are cleaned frequently to make sure a smelly box isn’t causing your beloved kitten to choose else-where to do her business. Pay attention to litter types since cats can have preferences; check to see if your cat is physically able to access the litter box (especially as they get older); remember, male cats have a tendency to spray, so consider neutering him if he is still intact.

For our canine friends, it is important to make sure they have access to the back-yard or are taken out frequently enough. Puppies especially need to go potty often, and you will want to give them opportunities every couple of hours, after eating, playing, and sleeping. If they do have an accident, scolding them won’t help (their brains won’t make the association) but rather make them more fearful of you. Instead, be sure to clean the affected area with an enzymatic cleaner to prevent them from coming back to the same spot in the house.

Pulling on Leash: First of all, let me just plead, “Get rid of your retractable leash!” If you want a dog that walks well on leash, a retractable leash is not your friend. I understand why pet owners buy them—Fluffy can go explore around and smell wherever she wants without me needing to follow. Some people find the handles more comfortable to grasp. I am sure there are other reasons as well.

Unfortunately, they are a poor tool for teaching dogs to walk well on leash if that is your goal. There is no consistency in the distance the dog is from its owner. Also the dog learns that it can “pull” to go where it wants. It also tends to keep owners’ attentions away from their dogs and ill-prepared for encounters with other people and dogs while out on walks. And when this situation arises, there is no mechanism to bring the dog on the retractable leash back in closer proximity to the owner. It is a recipe asking for conflict that could otherwise be avoided.

If you are looking for tools to help your dog to learn to walk “nicely,” look for Martingale collars, Gentle Leaders, or a variety of harnesses that can help discourage pulling. Of course, you will need to slowly accustom your dog to any type of lead, so they are happy to go out for a walk. I would avoid prong-collars or choke-collars that can cause pain and place additional pressure around a dog’s throat, increasing the risk for injury.

Anxiety: While it is a common behavioral problem, anxiety can be hard for owners to recognize. Dogs and cats display a wide variety of signs when they are anxious, some more subtle than others. Signs of fear or anxiety include ears positioned back, wide eyes, staring, panting, pacing, whining, hiding, destructive behaviors, and many others. Anxiety can be generalized in dogs and cats, meaning the animal is anxious at all times and in all situations, or it can be specific to certain situations or triggers (e.g., owners leaving the household, the vacuum cleaner, children on skateboards, nail trims, etc.).

When the anxious behavior occurs in response to a particular stimulus, you can work on teaching a pet to be less fearful through exposure to initially small doses of the stimulus with positive reinforcement (e.g., treats or other rewards). Gradually, the intensity or duration of the fear inducing stimulus is increased over time until the dog or cat learns to expect good things will happen. This is called “desensitization and counter-conditioning.” Often, it can be helpful to have a certified animal behaviorist or board-certified veterinary behaviorist to aid in the implementation of this kind of behavior work. Sometimes medications are needed to help reduce a pet’s stress to a level where the cat or dog is not so fearful so it can actually learn

Nipping/Mouthiness/Biting: This is more often a problem in young puppies and kittens. However, it can persist into adulthood. Young animals are curious creatures and naturally use their mouths to explore their environment and play. Sometimes they can get carried away and their owners’ hands suffer the consequence. So how should we address the problem?

First of all, our hands should never be a play object—we don’t want to rein-force the problem behavior. So regardless of how cute it may seem to have a kitten nibbling away at your arm, you should redirect it to playing with another object. If a puppy playfully nips at you, ignore it, walk away, stop all play. Give Buster one of his chew toys as an alternative. It is okay to say “ouch” when it happens, but physically punishing your pet is again only likely to make it fearful of you in the future and potentially lead to more aggressive or other problem behaviors.

10 Begging/Vocalizing: With begging behaviors, I think most owners realize they have played a part in creating the problem. Quite often the issue is around food (although it can be around toys or other desirables). Dogs and cats are smart. They can recognize patterns. And they can learn that if they meow, or come up to us with an endearing look, or perform any other number of cute behaviors that we will give them food—if we fall for it. Now, I am not saying that we should not use food for rewards or treats. However, if an owner wants to avoid creating begging behavior, then they should do so for training purposes or to motivate their dog and cat to do a specific behavior.

Now, what about when it comes to meal times and your cat waking you up in the morning? Well, there are a couple options. 1) Don’t feed your animal first thing in the morning. If they learn that first you have your coffee and then go for a walk before mealtime, they likely won’t wake you up in the morning to be fed. Cats are especially temporal creatures and will learn to recognize such a pattern. 2) Invest in an auto-mated feeder that has a timer. In this case, your dog or cat will stop associating you with feeding and therefore should stop the begging behavior.

VCA Rancho Mirage Animal Hospital is located at 71-075 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, CA. (760) 346-6103. Visit vcaranchomirage.com

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