When Good Dogs Go Bad:
Tips on Dealing with Problem Behaviour
By Sarah Fulcher, CDBC, KPA-CTP
If only dogs came pre-programmed and with instruction manuals! It would certainly save many a dog owner a lot of grief (and put trainers out of business). I often get questioned about how to fix a behavior problem by frustrated pet owners. Most people want a quick fix, however that rarely is a valid long term answer for most pet behavior problems. As I see it, with any dog behaviour problem you have four options:
Live With It
You can certainly choose to just put up with issues that your dog has as many people do. Sometimes they try one training method that doesn’t work, or they give a half-hearted try without success. Whatever the reason you decide to simply live with the problem, I would not suggest it if the behaviour puts the dog or any humans in danger or injury.
When dog trainers talk about management what we really mean is setting up the environment to prevent the behaviour from happening. Sometimes management is a good, simple answer to a pet problem. Something like putting the garbage away to keep the dog out of the garbage or crating a dog who chews up your stuff when unsupervised are logical management solutions. While managing is easy and sometimes a very practical fix, it is not a solution in itself for many problems. The issue with management is since it’s not teaching anything at some point it is bound to fail. You’ll forget to crate the dog, close the bathroom door, latch the baby gate, or leave something on the counter and Fido is free to engage in the forbidden behaviour once again. Because of this it is not recommended to only manage behaviours that are dangerous for the dog or for humans that are in the picture. Management is an important part of training a new behaviour, but sometimes it’s not an adequate solution in and of itself.
Of course as a dog trainer I am going to suggest training as the best possible solution to a dog issue. Training takes some time, some effort, and you need to be proactive but it is always the best long term solution to any challenges you are having. You will likely be surprised at how quickly you can start to see some positive changes when you implement an effective and well thought out training plan. If you’re struggling with this, you can contact a professional dog trainer or behaviour consultant to help you. The best training plan is going to encompass prevention of the undesired behaviour (management) while you teach the dog what you want them to do instead.
Many behaviour problems are simply caused by boredom. Try walking your dog more! At least one 10-15 minute walk a day where they are allowed to sniff, but better yet get involved in a stimulating activity with them such as Canicross, backpack walks, or bikejorring (with a safe bike leash). I recommend playing with your dog every day even for a few minutes or doing a bit of fun training. If your dog pulls on leash try a no pull harness such as the Freedom harness. Try out using a longer lead (12-15′) to give your dog a bit more activity on walks.
Dogs are actually contra-freeloaders, meaning given the choice they would rather work for their food than get free access. A great and easy way to deal with doggy boredom is to ditch your food bowl and use meal times as an enrichment opportunity. This can be as simple as using a food puzzle bowl (Kyjen makes some fun ones that are also affordable) or interactive puzzle toy at meal times. A stuffed Kong can be a great way to feed your dog’s body and brain, and if they get too skilled at emptying it you can make it harder by adding a bit of yogurt, canned food, or even just some water to the kibble and freezing the whole thing solid. You can also train your dog to find their food with their nose and hide it around the house. This in particular is extremely satisfying for dogs and is a great way to tire them out. Heck, even something as simple as tossing their meal into the grass so they have to sniff for it will make a huge difference for your dog!
Get Rid of It
That’s right, if you don’t want to live with it, manage it, or train it your final option unfortunately is to get rid of the dog. Find a new home that is better suited to the dog’s personality or has the time to dedicate for training.
Any time you have a behaviour problem with your pet, especially if it shows up suddenly, you should first check with the veterinarian. The first sign of many health problems is often behavioural, so sudden changes without any reason why (change in schedule, etc.) definitely point to a potential health issue and you should speak to your vet as soon as possible. Other than that, I am sorry to say there is no magic wand – the only way to change your dog’s behaviour is to change your own.