Behavior Issues

Working with behavioral issues in dogs is different than working with dog training. Dog training involves trying to shape behavior into a desired result. The assumption is that there is a certain emotional foundation already in place. When working with dogs who struggle with issues, however, it’s that very emotional foundation that we work with.

When I shift from working with training to working with issues, my role changes from “dog trainer” to what I call “cognitive-behavioral therapist for dogs” (the actual designation is “behaviorist”). Our goals change from behavioral goals to emotional goals. It’s important to keep this in mind, because a continued focus on the behavior (rather than the emotions) can lead to additional emotional stress for the dog.

The task at hand becomes to look at the behavior and use it to understand what is going on inside the dog’s head. Then, once you have an idea of the issues involved (for example, fear or excitement), then it’s possible to start designing exercises to address the dog’s emotional needs that must be met in order for the dog to heal. While there are general categories of canine issues, each dog is unique and the exercises need to be tailored individually.

Anytime a dog demonstrates that she o he has behavioral issues that stem from emotional issues, I strongly encourage getting help for the dog. In my eyes, it’s a health issue. The longer that the dogs goes without help, the harder it will be to help the dog overcome. And in some cases, it is possible that issues related to fear can turn into aggressive (and potentially dangerous) behavior. On the other hand, the earlier a dog’s human companions can offer help, the happier and healthier the dog can become.

Here are some examples of behavioral issues that require a therapeutic approach.

Separation Anxiety

Too often, separation anxiety is mis-diagnosed. Sometimes, the issues that are attributed to anxiety are just the result of poor training and maintenance. Other times, “isolation distress” (fear of being alone) is confused with “separation anxiety” (fear of bonded person leaving). If it is isolation distress, then having someone stay with the dog can help. If you are facing a case of actual separation anxiety, the road to recovery can be a long one.

A dog suffering from separation anxiety falls into a state of panic when the bonded companions disappear. Indeed, as the condition worsens the fear of loss itself (before departure) can begin the panic. The goal of treatment is to help the dog not only tolerate, but indeed to appreciate that absence. A variety of tactics can go into this:

  • Management of the situation: trying not to leave the dog alone during the process, unless absence is part of the process itself.
  • Changing patterns of departure: dogs pick up very well on patterns and what they signal is about to happen. Changing departure routines can undercut the anticipation of leaving, which can lessen anxieties.
  • Products: there are a variety of products out there to help dogs remain calm, such as the DAP diffuser and the Thundershirt.
  • Medications: your vet may prescribe medications in more extreme cases.
  • Relaxation protocol: All of the above are aids to the dog’s therapy. They are not the therapy itself. The actual therapy comes in the form of a relaxation protocol, which you will want to slowly work your dog through over time.

To get help, see my Separation Anxiety Starter Pack.

Aggression toward Others

The technical term for this is “reactivity”. Aggressive reactivity toward people or other dogs is usually related to fear. Whereas separation anxiety is a “fear of absence (or loss)”, aggressive reactivity is a “fear of presence”. When working with fearful dogs, it is important to use methods that do not stimulate more fear.  

The goal of treatment is to change the associations to stimuli from negative ones that lead to fear to positive ones that anticipate safety. This comes through intentionally-designed encounters that transform the “potential threat” into a “potential friend”. The methods employed are those of desensitization and counterconditioning that build up the kind of confidence that eliminates fear.

When working with aggression cases, it is extremely important to manage the dog’s behavior. The dog should remain on a leash. In some cases, it may be necessary for the dog to wear a muzzle. That means that prior to the aggression training, the dog’s human companions may need to learn how to train the dog to accept a muzzle. So, sometimes pre-training is important for other training to commence.

I emphasize strongly that aggressive dogs should not be dealt with aggressively. Old-fashioned approaches that do so are based on an understanding of dogs that has been long overturned scientifically. In fact, an aggressive punitive approach can make matters worse. Fortunately, we now know more about dog aggression, and we are now seeing that positive reinforcement based methods are the most effective way to deal with it.

Resource Guarding

If separation anxiety is a “fear of loss/absence” and aggressive reactivity is a “fear of presence”, then resource guarding is a combination of the two. Because the dog doesn’t want to lose her or his valuable, any active presence that comes near can be a threat. The resource doesn’t necessarily have to be a thing; it can be a person or a place.

The goal of treatment is to build up confidence and strengthen trust. Rather than perceiving interlopers as a threat, we want to integrate them as part of the pleasurable experience. In short, the dog guards the resource because she or he thinks it is necessary. We want to change perception so that guarding is unnecessary through desensitization and counterconditioning.

To best understand resource guarding, consider that people do it all the time. When I go to the store and park my car in the parking lot, I lock my car. I do not want anyone to take either it or that which I have in it. This is a form of resource guarding. When I go to sleep at night, I lock the doors for the same reason, and because of the safety issue. Again, resource guarding. If I am in a place where I do not feel that my resources are going to be threatened, I do not lock my vehicle. Resource guarding is a natural response for creatures in any environment when they don’t feel secure. In the case of dogs, the real issue is when they start to aggressively guard resources, which can become dangerous for those around them.

Sensitive Body Parts

It’s important that your dog aallows you to touch her or him all over. Yet, some dogs are protective of select body parts, sometimes to the point of aggressive reaction. This can make going to the vet or groomer extremely difficult. This could be related to the dog’s history, or it could just be that the dog is extra sensitive in an area (think of a tickle). Regardless, when we think of even simple tasks related to dog health, such as clipping a dog’s toenails, the ability to touch the dog is vital. Beyond having the dog deal with health-care professionals, you really want a family dog to enjoy physical interaction with other family members.

It’s important to try to understand this issue from the dog’s perspective rather than forcing yourself upon the dog. If you have adopted a dog, you probably don’t know whether the dog’s history has an explanation for the sensitivity. It’s possible that the dog was mishandled, injured, or abused through the body part. If that’s the case, then the dog has simply learned that when the body part is touched, danger is coming, and it’s best to fend off the danger. Or, it could simply be that the dog just doesn’t like being touched “there”. Regardless of the history (known or unknown), treatment begins with the dog in front of you.

The goal of treatment is to get the dog to think nothing of handling. Through desensitization and counter-conditioning, it’s possible to turn a dog around enough that she or he will look forward to a nail trim, or to the experience of children rubbing hands all over.