Behavioral problems are one of the main reasons dogs are surrendered to shelters across the country.
When a dog becomes destructive or disruptive, many pet owners can’t or don’t know how to deal with it, and some take the easy way out.
The truth, however, is that most behavior problems can be tied to simple issues such as boredom or anxiety. Taking the time to understand what’s causing your dog to misbehave is the first step to changing that behavior.
We talked to Carol Millman, B.Sc., RAHT, CTDI, owner of Wag The Dog Pet Training, to figure out what’s behind Fido’s bad behavior. Millman, who has a degree in psychology and did an apprenticeship training with dogs for people with disabilities, believes it’s very rarely just mischief.
What would you say are the most common behavior problems you see in dogs?
I would say that barking, destructiveness and digging are all very common. The number one thing that I get called in for, though, is specifically barking on walks, either at other dogs or people, usually accompanied by pulling on the leash.
Are some behavior problems more common in certain breeds than others?
Absolutely. It is easy to make sweeping generalizations when you see certain problems again and again in certain breeds. Cocker Spaniels are submissive urinators and will pee whenever someone walks in the door, for example. Yorkies have housebreaking problems. Chihuahuas are fear-aggressive. Hound dogs make too much noise. Huskies escape the yard.
But when you make sweeping generalizations based on breed, you do a disservice to those dogs. Every breed is going to have good points and bad points, but every dog is still an individual.
Breed-based generalizations vilify all of the Cocker Spaniels who don’t pee at the front door, the beautifully potty-trained Yorkies, the loving and social Chihuahuas, the quiet Beagles and the homebody Huskies. They exist and there are plenty of them. But whenever you get a dog, it is good to know what problems their breed is prone to so that you can be on the lookout for them and know in advance how to handle or, better yet, prevent them.
Many of the behaviour problems that come with a breed are also not really problems; they are behaviors that the dog has been bred to do that the owner simply has not provided an outlet for. Huskies are bred to run long distances. Border collies are bred to chase sheep. Hound dogs are bred to track and then bark loudly so the handler knows where they are.
So when someone tries to keep a Husky home in their yard, or get a Border collie to ignore running cats, or ask a coon hound to keep their nose off of the ground and be quiet, you are asking them to violate hundreds of generations of instinct. Dogs want to satisfy their basic purpose in life and often behavior problems arise from asking a dog to ignore their basic purpose.
Once you find a positive outlet for these instincts, the problems resolve. You just need to replace a bad outlet with a better one. Teach your Husky to pull a cart full of groceries home from the store. Teach your hound to find the remote control and your keys. Teach your border collie to herd you by staying at your heels on a walk.
Would you say that most behavior problems are connected to boredom and anxiety?
Yes, in a way. More specifically, I would say that most behavior problems, including anxiety, are caused by a misapplication of energy. Ideally, a dog’s energy should be directed toward good outlets: games of fetch or tug, long hikes, cute and helpful tricks, obedience and so on. But if a dog’s energy isn’t directed into positive outlets, it will manifest as less welcome behavior like barking, digging, leash pulling and anxiety.