Many people seem unsure as to what can be classed as a ‘Canine Behaviour Problem’ and I think it’s why many behaviour websites have a list of common ones on their page. It’s as if they feel they need to remind people what they feel you should consider a problem, and whilst I understand that approach I feel it can also serve to put other people off in making them think that theirs isn’t on the list, so it might sound silly if they mention it to a professional!
The thing is, any behaviour can be a problem depending on whose perspective you are looking at it from. That, for me, is really important. Are we asking if it’s is a problem for the owners, the people around them in daily life or for the dog itself, or other animals in the household or who come into contact with that dog?
What is a problem for one person may be no problem at all to another. It might be a problem for the dog however. Or for the neighbours around them. Or for other members of the family. Let’s look at a common scenario to see how that can happen.
A dog is howling and barking every day when the owners are out. There is only one neighbour and they are hard of hearing, so are not bothered by the noise the dog makes. The owners are not bothered by it either as they are not present and unaware it happens when they leave. The dog, however is having a major problem being left alone and is struggling to cope.
At this point this is fine for the people as they have no problem but bad for the dog who has a big problem.
The same dog is howling and barking every day when the owners are out. There is a new neighbour next door who hears the dog and is bothered by it, so they report it to the owners, who are unaware of the problem as they are out when it happens and the previous neighbour never heard anything. From their perspective it is a new problem that has only just happened or the new neighbour is being really unreasonable!
The dog still is having the same level of difficulty as in the first scenario but now people are realising it.
This is now better for the dog, who is no longer suffering in silence, but it’s not good for the owners, who now have a problem and have to find a solution so their neighbour isn’t constantly disturbed when they go out.
Dog problem or human problem? Which is actually the cause?
So, for me, there are always two sides to a situation to consider. That of the people and that of the dog. I find that people often become consumed with the idea that the dog is causing a problem but forget that the reason for that is because the dog has problems of it’s own.
We have to remember that we take them into our homes and then we control everything they do. We limit their freedom to indulge in normal canine behaviours at will and often forget they have needs too in order to live a fulfilled and contented life.
Can you imagine if someone took you to live in their house and then locked you in. They decide what food you eat, when you eat it and where. They decide when you go to the toilet or not and where and how long you get to do that. They decide if you get to go out today and where and for how long.
Imagine being taken shopping every day but going to the same place for only 15 minutes. Or being taken out for an hour, marched down the road without being allowed to look at anything then locked in again.
Dogs aren’t allowed to chase anything or bark at anything or scratch or chew or dig anything. All are normal behaviours when in context with everything else happening in a day. There are so many things they cannot do that they would choose to do, that I find it amazing all dogs don’t have problems.
“I just want them to stop doing it!”
This is a sentence I hear very often. I understand it, the person is tired and frustrated and fed up of dealing with something the dog is doing that is really annoying. I get it, I really do. Ive been there myself and its how I came to be a canine behaviourist (read the About page).
If we want a dog to stop doing something we have to figure out what they can do instead and enable them to access it and do it. So, rather than endlessly saying ‘Stop it’ and leaving it there, we should say ‘Stop that and come and do this instead’. It’s about supplying an outlet for the frustration that works and is practical for all.
We have to accept responsibility for satisfying the needs of a dog if we choose to take one into our home. They have urges and wants too and if we want them to be happy we need to make sure we take care of as many of those needs as possible, and believe it or not , that really isn’t as daunting as it sounds much of the time.
If we are preventing them from carrying out behaviours they are designed or bred to do well and enjoy, we are asking for trouble. Now, obviously we don’t want our dogs chasing everything in sight out on a walk or around the house but we can indulge that a little in other ways and also tap into other skills the dog has. There needs to be an outlet for that need or the end result will be frustration and escalation of other behaviours we find equally inappropriate, but which are normal for a dog.
If we don’t look at the dog and figure out how to make their life better and more complete then nothing will change, because they cant change without our help. Remember we control all of their environment, so we need to make sure if is supplying what they need. That requires an honest appraisal by us as to whether we can do more or better.
Often a dog is just prevented from doing the thing that is annoying humans without considering the impact on the dog or how things may then develop in the future. The people are then happy but the dog is still having a problem. Its just not a problem for you anymore.
What is the solution?
It always comes down to the dog. A dog who has all needs met will be contented and fullfilled in life. They are then much less likely to cause you any problems. If the dog in the above scenario was prepared for spending time alone properly then they wouldn’t need a human constantly around them to make them feel safe and relaxed. They would also be a more robust and confident dog in general and a dog more capable of coping with life and making better decisions.
Being in a state of constant stress when left alone takes its toll on the dog. Chronic stress is as debilitating for them as it is for humans. Their general health will suffer, so they are more likely to develop chronic health problems, which is bad for them and expensive for the owner. They are likely to never feel very confident or safe, even when people are present. This is because they worry every time you get your coat or keys that they will be left. They become clingy and very dependent, and this is a problem for you and the dog then in many other situations.
When does a normal behaviour become a problem?
Obviously many canine behaviours are normal for any dogs. Barking is normal and howling can be but we have to look at it in context. If a dog has a quick bark when someone walks past the window this could be normal behaviour. If lots of people pass the window every day it can then become a problem as the dog will be barking frequently and it could become more intense and hysterical.
From the perspective of the dog, they may be very troubled by potential intruders and cannot relax when they are constantly triggered. This isn’t great for them and not for an owner trying to relax in their presence.
The dog may have very little stimulation or interesting activity in a day and so becomes obsessed with barking at passers by as a way of occupying themselves and to satisfy a need not being met. This also is not great for the dog or the owner.
The dog may be getting over-stimulated and be unable to relax or ignore anything happening around them. Again, not great for them or an owner.
It might not be great for the person walking past every day with their own dog who is upset at the dog that barks at them as they pass by and starts to bark back or refuse to walk past.
There could be many other reasons for the behaviour, or escalation in behaviour, that are less obvious, and this is why it is important to bring in a professional to figure this out with you. You can ‘Google it’ and get lots of potentially great advice and lots of not so great. How do you know which is correct? If you apply the wrong thing first you may get a negative result that could add even more problems to the existing one.
The problem is that no-one on line who has not seen your dog in the flesh can possibly say what is happening to them with any degree of certainty anymore than your doctor can diagnose your illness without seeing you.
So, what IS a behaviour problem?
Absolutely anything can be classed as a behaviour problem if it is causing a problem for any person, dog or other animal involved.
If you walk with a stick then having a big dog pull you on the lead is a problem.
The dog could be having problems using their hindlimbs and so is pulling on the lead, or they could be sustaining damage to their neck because of the constant pulling. That means you and the dog both have a problem.
A dog barking when someone knocks at the door can be a problem if they do it all the time but can be comforting if they do it briefly if you live alone and worry about safety.
A dog who steals socks might be considered cute and comical until a new baby comes along and they then steal their toys or items of clothing. When you are tired and stressed out with a new baby those things can seem less funny that they did before!
So, when we ask what a behaviour problem is, we generally think in terms of the problem for the people, not about the underlying problem the dog is having. If we help the dog to feel happy and content then the problem and all other knock on problems cease to exist for everyone.
If you are putting up with certain things at the moment be sure that those things wont become a future problem when circumstances change. That wont be the dog’s fault if you have indulged them but then want them to break the fun habit of half a lifetime overnight by getting mad with them. Be careful what you encourage!
In short, if you are getting fed up with something, even a little bit, you might benefit from some help. Especially if you find yourself being often frustrated or angry with your dog. It should be a great partnership with moments of frustration (we are all human and dogs will be dogs!) but the vast majority of the time with your dog should be enjoyable.
If in doubt – ask us. Whatever the problem…….