Common Behavior Problems in Adult Dogs
As many as 90 percent of all dog owners report some behavioral problem with their dog. If you’re lucky, it will be some nuisance behavior. If you’re not so lucky, it will be a more serious behavior that will disrupt his or your life.
Socialization and learning don’t end in puppyhood. After the novelty of puppyhood wears off it’s easy to put your dog’s learning and activity needs on the back burner. But since many behavioral problems don’t emerge until the time of social maturity at about two years of age, the more you can interact with your dog the sooner you can detect hints of problems and act on them. Far too many dogs are surrendered for behavior problems when they reach social maturity, so it is an especially critical time to maintain a good relationship with your dog.
Common complaints include hyperactivity, irrational fears, barking, fighting, chasing, running off, digging, and aggression toward humans. When your dog has a behavior you consider a problem, first try to find out why he is doing what he’s doing. Does it happen only in one situation, place, or at one time of day? What life experiences could be influencing his behavior? Is it really a normal canine behavior that you just consider a problem?
Some behaviors are normal dog behaviors. Dogs naturally tend to dig, bark, explore, and roll in disgusting things---among other behaviors that make owners crazy. You can work to guide them to better behaviors, but don't expect a dog to come pre-trained not to act like a dog.
Some problems result from inappropriate breed selection. If your Collie barks, or your terrier digs, or your hound hunts, or you sled dog pulls, or your Pointer never tires, you may not ever be able to entirely change those instincts - they're inherent to the breed. It doesn't mean you can't make compromises with their behavior, but it will be more difficult.
Some behavioral problems stem from inappropriate rearing and training. The real wonder is that dogs aren’t in worse mental shape than they are. Most of them are unemployed, yet have been bred to work. Most are alone, yet are naturally social animals. Most are untrained, yet are naturally inclined to learn. Dogs can’t read a book or watch television when they’re confined and alone; instead they often resort to chewing, barking, pacing, digging, or self-destructive behavior such as repetitive licking to one part of the body. Crating is often done in the name of training, but if the training isn’t working then the crate is really just a storage box.
Dogs need mental, physical, and social stimulation. When they lack any of these they will try to make up for them any way they can. Unfortunately, confinement often creates a vicious cycle of escalating bad behavior. A dog lacking social stimulation may throw himself at his owner when he finally has the chance to interact, licking and jumping and making such a pest of himself in his quest for attention that his owner labels him as hyperactive and puts him back in confinement. A dog lacking physical stimulation may run helter-skelter when he finally has the chance, again prompting his owner to lock him back up. A dog lacking mental stimulation may get into all sorts of mischief when he finally has access to an interesting environment, causing his owner to label him destructive and put him back in the crate. This cycle of isolation and unruly behavior tends to weaken the bonding of the person to the dog, ultimately leading to the dog’s relinquishment to a shelter. Crating and confinement may subdue unwanted behavior, but it won’t help the dog get better.
The “just this once” phenomenon can set up intermittent reinforcement schedules for common nuisance behaviors such as begging, jumping up, barking to get in, or sleeping on otherwise forbidden furniture. A similar situation occurs when family members have different ideas about what is and is not permissible for the dog. Owners may inadvertently reward their dogs for unwanted behaviors; sometimes just coming out to tell the dog to stop doing what it is doing is rewarding because the dog has earned his person’s presence. Indulgent owners often add to the problem by playing with, consoling, or feeding the dog on demand. Dogs that are constantly rewarded for nothing have less reason to work for rewards.
Your veterinarian may be a source of help. Dogs with serious behavior problems may also profit from seeing a clinical canine behaviorists. Clinical behaviorists are veterinarians who are diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. To become board certified, they must have extensive training and specialized experience beyond their veterinary degree, and pass a review and specialized examinations. Clinical behaviorists are trained in diagnostics and treatment, and have the advantage of being able to recognize and treat organic problems such as brain tumors, epilepsy, and chemical imbalances that may be responsible for behavior problems. They are keen observers of behavior, and may spot clues that you have either missed or misinterpreted. They can also prescribe drug therapy that may help with training. If your unique situation warrants it, your veterinarian can consult with one or refer you to one in your area.