Surprisingly Easy Dog Behaviors to Change

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by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

Whether you acquire your dog from a shelter or from a breeder, some will come with — or develop — vexing behaviors of one sort or another. In fact, some 42% to 90% of owners when asked point blank if their dog exhibits any, even minor, behavior problems will admit that it does. What these owners often fail to realize, though, is that most of these behavior problems are surprisingly easy to treat as long as owners take the right course of action. I will list a few of the more common behavior problems and their solutions below.

Submissive Urination (otherwise known as Super-submission)
Some young dogs have what is to us an annoying way of expressing their deference and respect in that they squat or roll and urinate when approached as an appeasement gesture. While this problem usually disappears of its own accord within a year or so, its termination can be hastened by avoiding the circumstances that trigger it while working in the background to build the dogs confidence. Avoiding triggers might be as simple as not looking directly into the dog’s eyes when returning home or walking around the offender in a circuitous path rather than approaching it directly. Alternatively, dogs can be trained to bring a toy to those entering the home or to go to a dog bed when people arrive, both behaviors incompatible with the act of submission. Background measures involve building the dog’s confidence by ensuring positive interactions with all strangers, never punishing or yelling at the dog, and allowing it as much free rein as possible. Playing tug-of-war with an under-confident pup and allowing it to win will also build its confidence and self-respect.

Separation Anxiety
It is said that 15% to 17% of the nation’s dogs suffer from clinically diagnosable separation anxiety, which manifests itself in several ways ranging from excessive vocalization, destructive behavior, and inappropriate elimination – all occurring only when the owner is away. The trick here is to change the dog’s perception of “alone time” by ensuring that a plethora of good things are made available when you’re away. For example, if you feed your dog immediately before you leave and leave out a variety of tasty food-stuffed toys, you will be appealing to his sense of taste. Leaving out non-food item chew toys, perhaps enhanced with some novel odor like vanilla, anise, or even hunting lure, will appeal to his sense of taste and smell. Providing him a room with a view or leaving on the TV or radio will appeal to his sense of vision and hearing. Dog TV (DOGTV.Com) works well for many dogs and has bio-acoustically engineered music in the “relaxation” phase. On returning, your greeting should be kept low key and all the goodies should be picked up immediately so that they are not available when you are!

Owner-Directed Aggression
Various forms of aggression are quite common in dogs and account for the majority of behavior problems. Owner-directed aggression is one such type. This is easily handled in most cases by simply avoiding unnecessary confrontations by, for example, not putting your hand in the dog’s food bowl while he is eating eliminating particularly emotive treats, like rawhides, and not physically waking the dog up when he is resting or sleeping. Even Shakespeare said, “Let sleeping dogs lie”, and that’s a good axiom. In addition, there should be new house rules, requiring the dog to sit or lie down to receive meals or treats. This last measure alone was sufficient to prevent owner-directed aggression in pushy puppies, according to one Master’s Degree thesis.

Fear Aggression to Strangers
Unfortunately, all too many dogs are not properly socialized from a young age and some have even been mistreated. This results in certain apprehensiveness toward strangers in young dogs. As they get older, that apprehension and fearfulness can take a proactive turn in that they will begin to bark at, lunge toward, or even bite strangers who approach them.

The key to dealing with this problem is ensuring that owners properly control dogs of this persuasion to prevent any unfortunate accidents and to teach the dog acceptable behaviors in the presence of strangers. If the owner is firmly in charge of the situation, the dog will appreciate that and will defer to them since it now no longer necessary to take unilateral action. The best way to control such a dog and instill an owner’s leadership is through the use of head halter such as the Gentle Leader®. With the dog under proper control, the next job is to ensure that strangers don’t make unwelcome advances. Preferably, they should not look into the dog’s eyes, should not walk directly toward it, should not attempt to pet it or even talk to it — and they certainly should not reach a trembling hand toward the dog as a gesture of appeasement. The dog will not understand any of these advances as, uninvited, they penetrate the dog’s personal space and are interpreted by the dog as a threat or challenge.

With the dog and stranger under control, there is one more important ingredient to fold into the mix. That is counter-conditioning — literally training an opposite expectation – through the supply of food treats, tennis balls, or whatever the dog likes, to be provided by strangers at each meeting. In time the dog learns my owner’s in control, strangers never bother me and, what’s more, they come bearing gifts. All of this sets the dog on the right learning curve.

Fear Aggression to Other Dogs
This is another common problem that is created for exactly the same reasons as fear aggression to strangers — lack of socialization and/or unfortunate experiences. Owners’ control of the situation is paramount, again, by virtue of a head halter, avoidance of negative encounters, and/or the judicious use of a muzzle when the dog is off lead.

Storm Phobia
Dogs who are terrified of storms are pitiful and most simply seek their owner’s company or hide when storms occur. Everything is much worse when the owner is not home and some severely affected dogs will destroy property during severe weather events as their owner is not there for moral support. Treatment of this condition involves providing a safe place for a dog to go to during storms – a location akin to a tornado bunker, preferably in an out-of-the-way place like a cellar or a heavily curtained, relatively sound-proof room. Training the dog to go to this safe place during storms requires the owner to physically bring the dog to the selected location during storms. The room should be plied with all sorts of good things, including food treats, toys, and the owner can keep the dog occupied with interactive games. Bright lights in the area will obscure darkened skies and trace lightning flashes. In addition, calming bio-acoustic music (e.g. “Through a Dog’s Ear” ®) can be played at a volume loud enough to serve as white noise. In time, the dog will take himself to the safe place on his own when he realizes that it gets him out of harm’s way. Finally, the Storm Defender® cape is effective in a large percentage of dogs with this phobia, though in extreme cases medication might be necessary as well.

Excessive Barking
All dogs bark. The old saying is, “If you don’t like a dog that barks, get a cat.” But it’s true, you can have too much of a good thing. Dogs bark for a number of different reasons and it is helpful to find out why a particular dog barks so that something can be done about it. For barking that takes the form of attention seeking, simply ignoring the dog for at least three weeks is the best solution. For dogs with excessive territorial barking, simply denying them access to windows at the front of the house, repositioning couches away from front windows, drawing blinds, and so on, can be effective to attenuate overstimulation. What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve! For dogs that bark because of separation anxiety, the treatment mentioned above should be brought into play.

Running Away
The most common cry we hear from owners is that all they want is their run-away dog to do is come when he is called. And most dogs can be trained to do just that. To teach a dog to come when called, he must first be trained on a long lead, perhaps even a washing line attached to his collar. First from a short distance, the command is given, “Rover, come here, good boy” (praising him so he knows he is not in trouble). If he comes immediately, he should be praised lavishly and given a memorable food treat – something really delicious. That will reinforce the behavior (positive reinforcement). If he doesn’t come immediately when called, another element is added to the sequence: 1. Give the command, 2. Make it happen by reeling him in, 3. He winds up sitting in front of you as desired, 4. reward him as before (even though you had to make it happen). The bottom line: when you say the magic words, you ensure that the desired response always occurs, and he is always be praised or otherwise rewarded. For the occasional dog with a chronic running away problem, you may need to keep him on a long line or walk him off leash only in a fenced-in.

Whatever behavior problem your new or old friend is showing, there is always a way forward. There is an old saying, “That as long as you are on the right path you will eventually get where you’re going.” All I have done is explain that path for the various conditions mentioned above. The journey down that path may be long or may be short but, like every journey, it begins with the first step and continues with the very essence of training — consistency and patience on the part of the trainer (that would be you!).

Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES ( He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

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