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Dog Behaviour >> PREVENTING BEHAVIOURAL PROBLEMS

Most behaviour problems are natural normal dog behaviours that are unacceptable in a household situation.  Excessive barking, chewing things, housetraining issues are good examples.  So how can these problems be avoided?  In my opinion the key elements are as follows:

  1. Ensure Adequate Exercise
  2. Reward What You Want
  3. Leadership Training (positive approach)
  4. Obedience Training (positive approach)

I’ll expand on each of these points below.

 Ensure Adequate Exercise

Before starting any exercise program, please ask your veterinarian what exercises are appropriate for your pet.  Follow their recommendations on exercising in the heat or cold as well to avoid illness/injury.

Most dogs need at least 40 minutes of exercise/day.  High energy breeds certainly benefit from more.   I like to think of exercise in a few different categories:

  • High energy exercises that really wind your dog up like fetch, frisbee, retrieving, flyball, agility, playing with other dogs, etc. 
  • Medium energy exercises like swimming and jogging that are good at burning calories and energy but don’t mentally wind your pet up. 
  • Low energy exercise like walking (although if your dog is straining/pulling it might move up to the other categories) or slow paced obedience training. Generally walking on leash at heal position is a calm activity that shouldn’t mentally over-stimulate your dog.

I personally think that if your dog is fit and physically able to, he/she should have a combination of the exercise types above every day.  The walking exercises are more appropriate for times when you don’t want to get your dog really wound up.  Before going out for a while, consider a high or medium energy exercise followed by a low energy exercise so the dog is wanting to rest and be calm while you are out.  The higher energy exercises are good for times when you can just play and have fun and then hang out with your pet.

Whenever possible, it is good to incorporate breed specific and mentally stimulating exercises for your dog.. retrieving for Retrievers;  swimming for the breeds that like water, tracking for the scenting breeds, herding/guarding breeds often like Frisbee and other fast paced games.  Once you’ve explored the activities that your breed normally does, try to experiment in the other categories.  They might not be stars but it will mentally challenge them while giving them exercise. 

See the article on ‘Fun Things to Do with Your Dog’ for more ideas.

Reward What You Want

It is very important to reward behaviours that you want such as being calm and quiet.  If your dog is misbehaving, the best thing to do is to ignore the behaviour but then reward the dog when it performs a good behaviour such as a sit or down.  A lot of people, and houseguests, reward puppies when they jump but as the dog grows this then becomes an annoyance at the least and a health hazard at worst.  Remember too that yelling and even physical punishment can reward bad behaviours.  Dogs will act out to get attention, even negative attention, if they are feeling needy.  This is similar to children acting out to get attention. 

Leadership Training

Note:  If you read the Leadership Training article, this section is the same. 

There are many names for this type of training.  I’ve heard it called ‘Work to Earn’, ‘Nothing in Life is Free’ or ‘Doggie Boot Camp’ or ‘Structuring Your Relationship with Your Pet’.  I like the name Leadership Training as to me it describes the relationship you want to have with your pet.  I don’t want my dog to be a slave and I don’t want to be a drill sergeant.  I want to be like the best boss you can imagine.  I want to be the type of boss who has high expectations of my employee but also supports them in meeting those expectations.  The type of boss that if you make a mistake will say ‘lets see what we can do to make sure that doesn’t happen again’.  The type of boss that publically acknowledges you when you do a good job.  The type of boss that you want as your best friend, but you would never lose site of the fact that they are the boss.  It is not about dominance, it is about cooperation and making your dog want to please you as then good things happen for them.  This is how I see it anyway. If you need more detail, I’ve copied a whole textbook article at the end for your reference.

This training requires a few obedience commands such as sit or down to start with.  More is better to keep the dog interested.  To initially motivate your dog a high value dog soft, chewy, treat can be used at first (1/2 cm square piece of cut up meat without fat etc.).  Once the dog understands the process, then start using their regular food so you do not create an overweight pet or a picky eater.

For leadership training the dog has to work for everything.   His/her pay cheque includes food, toys, walks, treats, and pets.  So, if the pet comes up and puts his/her head under your hand for a pet, you ignore the attention seeking behaviour.  When you want to give attention you then call the pet over and ask him/her to sit. If the pet does so, then you give attention.  If the pet chooses not to comply, then you don’t give a reward (i.e. no saying sit, sit, sit, sit….etc).    If the dog is barking, you ignore the dog. Once the dog stops barking wait a few minutes and ask the dog over and give a command.   If the dog follows the command, then give a treat and or TLC.  So, do this for anything the pet wants, no exceptions.  This will teach your dog to be calm and quiet to receive rewards.  Soon your dog will approach quietly and sit and look at you and then you can reward this lovely behaviour.

Feeding the dog their meal is a big part of this method and can have huge benefits.  The benefits include:

  • Teaching your dog that food is a valuable resource that you control thereby elevating your status greatly.
  • Helping picky dogs be better eaters.
  • Reducing the likelihood of food aggression and/or food bowl aggression.

So, you can either use your kibble throughout the day or do this at the regular feeding time.   If you are potty training a puppy, feeding time would be best.  Get out the dog food and put it in a bowl on the table or cupboard and call the dog over.  Ask the dog to do something for each kibble.  Sit, down, stand, roll over, any trick etc.  When they comply, give the dog the treat.  While this is time consuming it can have great bonding and mental benefits for you and your pet.  Even if you can do this for a few days then go to just asking your pet to sit for the bowl of food it can make a big difference.  Now, if the dog is not hungry enough to comply, simply walk away and try again later, repeat until the dog eats.  If your dog is not very food motivated a 12 hour fast may be helpful (ask your veterinarian first though).  If you are doing it throughout the day for an older dog, simply give them a treat for any good behaviour such as going outside, lying calmly on a mat, coming to you and sitting etc.

Be sure not to overdo the treats and as soon as a dog understands, reduce the junk food and use more and more kibble.

OBEDIENCE TRAINING (USING POSITIVE METHODS)

Obedience training that is done in a positive manner using rewards such as treats and praise is highly recommended.  Dogs that aren’t trained or have had harsh training methods are more likely to have behavioural issues.  Obedience training should be fun for you and your dog.  Tips for finding good classes include:

  • Watching a class to see if dogs/owners are having fun and the pet's behaviour is improving.
  • Is the trainer kind, calm and relaxed? 
  • Avoid classes where harsh leash corrections are used.
  • The classes should be small and well controlled and the ratio of instructors and helpers to dogs should be low.
  • If you already have a problem dog are they able to separate you or give you some extra 1 on 1?
  • Are they focused on safety?

As a veterinarian I’ve often had owners say that their dog doesn’t go out in pubic much so it doesn’t need obedience training.  Meanwhile they are often having a very difficult time controlling the dog and the dog is very difficult to examine.  So I think it is very important to remember that the purpose of obedience classes is to have your dog obey you when there are distractions as well as at home.  The better behaved your pet is the more places you can take him/her and the more fun you will have.  Your vet visits will be way less stressful too.

So, I hope the above will help you prevent issues with your pet.  Remember though, if you are having troubles, seek help early.   There could be small mistakes you are making within the program that can be corrected easily to get your dog on track. 

Thanks for your interest and your dog gives you two paws up for caring! 

Dr. Liana Mawer

There is more information in this article about finding a class or trainer:

http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&S=0&C=0&A=2334
http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&S=0&C=0&A=1703
http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&S=0&C=0&A=1559

Nothing in Life is Free:
http://www.ddfl.org/behavior/nilif.pdf


Following is an article from a textbook:

BLACKWELL’S FIVE-MINUTE VETERINARY CONSULT CLINICAL COMPANION

STRUCTURING YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR PET


Why: Structure and predictability can be a very important for animals, especially those that suffer from anxiety. By providing guidance to the pet during all interactions and rewarding calm and quiet behavior, you establish a new way of relating to your pet that rewards desirable behavior and provides added structure and predictability for the pet. You are also constantly practicing having your pet respond to your commands when there are relatively few distractions. This will increase the chance that your pet will be able to focus on you when there are distractions present.

When: This program is integrated into your everyday life and all interactions with your pet. It is not to be done during a “special training session” but instead is a fundamental and long-term change in the way you interact with your pet. Every time you interact with your pet, you should first ask the pet to do a command.

Who: All family members should abide by these new rules for pet interaction. All dogs in the home can participate.

How: It is important that the human involved in these interactions remains calm, controlled, and patient. These exercises are not about forcing a dog to respond; it is a simple request and, if completed correctly, compliance is rewarded. Commands should be given in a soft, calm voice—do not shout or repeat commands. Say the pet’s name, then the command, then pause and give the pet a chance to respond. Use commands that your pet knows: For some pets, you may use the sit command frequently. For others, they will have a larger repertoire of commands to select from, such as sit, down, shake, watch me, etc. Noncompliance is not rewarded; essentially the dog is ignored for noncompliance. However, you can try giving another command in a few minutes. Once the dog “learns” the new system, they are usually very compliant.

Giving attention to your pet: Attention-seeking behaviors such as pawing, barking, meowing, jumping up, etc., should be ignored—no attention should be given.

This includes eye contact, touching, or speaking to the pet. Attention should not be given on demand, but either for compliance with a command as described above or when the pet is calm and quiet. If your pet is asking for attention by standing or sitting quietly, ask the pet to comply with a command and then pet them. The goal is not to ignore the pet, but rather ignore the attention-seeking behaviors. If this is too difficult, try a signaled nonattention time. For a set period of time (perhaps using a timer), you will not pay any attention to your pet’s demands for attention.
To help the pet understand what is happening, you can also add a signal such as a towel or blanket on your lap. When the time begins, place the towel on your lap and ignore the pet. When the time limit has ended, remove the towel. For the rest of the time try to ignore attention-seeking attempts and have your pet earn all things. As your pet learns what the signal means, they often will go lay down when they see the towel come out.

Structured interactive time: All pets need social interactions, play, exercise, and grooming. Make sure to incorporate these into your regular routine on a predictable basis. If the pet knows that play time, a walk, or petting are forthcoming, they often can be relaxed and calm at other times.

What: As a general rule, your pet should be given a command before engaging in all interactions. This includes giving any attention, food, access to new areas, etc., to your pet. While many people are “trained” to give a command to their dog before giving a treat or a meal, most people give away attention for free. Therefore, you may need to focus on making sure you request a command prior to all social interactions with your pet. Listed below are four possible responses from the pet and the recommended human reaction to these responses. Also noted are common
errors in human response that you should avoid.

Dog’s response to command Human action Avoiding common errors

Your dog responds immediately to your command.

Provide the dog with a reward. The reward may be attention, food, access to a different area, etc. Some people reward noncompliance—don’t do this!

Your dog does not respond to the command.
Give no reward and terminate interaction with dog (e.g., look away, walk away, etc.). Do not repeat command multiple times. Do not physically manipulate dog into compliance. Do not nflict interactive punishment for noncompliance.

Your dog anticipates the command and performs it before your request.
Ask the dog to perform another command prior to rewarding. Don’t reward the action if you didn’t give the
command; these exercises are intended to improve leadership and encourage the dog to look to humans for
direction.

Your dog exhibits aggression either during the command request or during delivery of reward.
Aggression always results in social isolation.  Immediately turn away  from the dog and exit the area or put the dog in a time-out spot until it has calmed down. This social isolation is a form of punishment and gives the dog a chance to calm down.  Do not interactively punish the dog: aggressive dogs are aroused, and interactive corrections may serve to escalate the aggression. If the dog is aggressing, trying to escort it to a time-out spot may be dangerous. If this is the case, just leave the dog alone where the incident occurred.

This handout may be reproduced without written permission.

Authors Drs. Horwitz and Neilson