Dog digging

Struggling with a badly behaved dog? Take heart: As many as 90 percent of all dog owners report some behavioral problem with their dog. If you’re lucky, you will be faced with a simple nuisance behavior. If you’re not so lucky, it will be something more serious that will disrupt his — or your — life.

Socialization and learning don’t end with puppyhood. After the novelty of owning a puppy 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 the beginnings of problems and deal with 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.

Identifying Problem Behavior

Common behavior complaints include hyperactivity, irrational fears, barking, fighting, chasing, running off, digging and aggression toward humans. When your dog has a behavior you consider problematic, first try to find out why he's doing what he’s doing. Does it happen only in one situation or place, or only at one time of day? What life experiences could be influencing his behavior? Is this simply a normal canine behavior that you consider a problem? If your dog's behavior changes suddenly, it's always a good idea to check in with your veterinarian, since some medical problems can cause changes in behavior or attitude.

Some seemingly problematic behaviors are normal dog behaviors. Dogs naturally tend to dig, bark, explore, and roll in disgusting things — all behaviors that make owners crazy. You can work to guide your dog to better behaviors, but don't expect a dog to come pretrained not to act like a dog.

Some behavior problems result from inappropriate breed selection. If your Collie barks or your terrier digs or your hound hunts or your sled dog pulls or your Pointer seems hyper, 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.

Assessing the Environment

Some behavioral problems stem from inappropriate rearing and training. The real wonder is that more dogs aren’t in worse mental shape than they are. Most dogs have been bred to work, yet are unemployed. Most are naturally social animals, yet are left alone. Most are naturally inclined to learn, yet are essentially untrained. Dogs can’t read a book or watch television when they’re confined and alone; instead, they often resort to chewing, barking, pacing or digging, or to self-destructive behavior such as repetitively licking one part of their 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 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 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 and the dog, and can ultimately lead to the dog’s relinquishment to a shelter. Crating and confinement may subdue unwanted behavior, but it won’t help the dog learn to behave better.

Consistency Is Key

Owners may inadvertently reward their dogs for unwanted behaviors; sometimes just coming out to tell the dog to stop doing what he is doing is rewarding because the dog has earned his person’s presence and attention. Indulgent owners often add to the problem by playing with, consoling or feeding the dog on demand. 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. Dogs that are constantly, or even intermittently, rewarded for nothing have less reason to work for rewards and are less likely to learn good behavior.

Your veterinarian may be a source of help. Dogs with serious behavior problems may also profit from seeing a clinical canine behaviorist. 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.