Behavioral problems can be more life-threatening to dogs than physical diseases. The most common cause of death of dogs under the age of three is euthanasia because of behavioral issues. This is easy to understand: an aggressive large dog can be a serious threat to human safety. Every year in Ireland, over 300 dog bite incidents require hospital treatment. One of the basic requirements for pet dogs is that they need to be safe around humans.
Aggression is not the only challenging behaviour: other problems include jumping up on people, pulling on the leash, and separation anxiety (leading to barking and destruction when left on their own). All of these behaviors damage the human/pet bond. As well as euthanasia, many dogs are relinquished to shelters because they are no longer wanted.
Bad behavior can often be treated effectively: the problem is not usually with the dog. Instead, it’s about how we humans interact with our dogs. Often, we don’t understand them, and we respond instinctively to their unwanted behavior in ways that make it even more likely to be repeated. We don’t realise that we are doing this. Some people have to have dogs rehomed because of bad behaviour, and then a couple of years later, they find themselves in exactly the same situation again: another dog needing to be rehomed. This is not bad luck: the pattern repeats because of the way that the humans in the house interact with the dogs. This is unconscious: people genuinely do not know what to do, and they make mistakes without realising that they are making mistakes.
So what can be done to help? The simple answer is education, starting with preventing behavioral problems from developing in the first place by choosing the right dog.
Puppies need to be well socialised between 2–14 weeks of age: at this time they are open to learning about new experiences. They should be gently introduced to different types of people, animals and environments at this time: this is how they learn to be relaxed as adult dogs. If puppies are kept in socially isolated situations during this key period (such as happens in badly-run puppy farms), they grow up to be fearful, anxious adult dogs with bad behaviour, including aggression. If you are looking for a new dog, choosing a well-socialised animal is key.
You should also choose a dog that’s calm, relaxed and friendly. Don’t choose a nervy, frightened dog because you feel sorry for it, or a highly energetic, bouncy dog because you think it will be a good challenge to calm it down. Choose a dog that’s going to be an easy companion.
Next, you need to learn how to interact with dogs, how to read a dog’s body language, and how to respond if they do display unwanted behaviours. Much of this is counter-intuitive. Many of the ideas that people have in their heads about dog behavior are completely wrong. For example, most people still believe that the pack order is important to dogs, and that it’s necessary to dominate dogs in some way by punishing bad behaviour. This has been shown to be complete nonsense, yet the ideas are still promulgated by many people, including some professionals involved in dog training. Recent scientific research has shown that training methods including these concepts are likely to do more harm than good. If punishment is used, dogs are more likely to be fearful, anxious, and aggressive, and they’ll have a worse relationship with their owner. Training methods like electric shock collars, choke collars, water pistols and others cause harm. But the idea of dominating and disciplining dogs appeals to human thinking, and is difficult to dispel.
Instead, it’s now been scientifically well established that reward-based training methods are the most successful way to teach dogs and to modulate their behaviour. This means giving rewards for good behavior and removing the rewards for behaviors that you want to reduce. Rewards usually mean tasty food treats as well as petting, and playing (eg with a favorite toy).
Careful home management can prevent problem behaviours, from keeping the kitchen counter free from food, locking the kitchen bin into a cupboard, and using a no-pull harness (ie one with a front clip) rather than a standard collar. Regular exercise is also important: bored dogs, full of energy, are more likely to misbehave. The use of activities to engage the dog’s brain helps too: food puzzle toys, snuffle mats, and group activities including tricks, agility, or nose (sniffing) work.
Regular training is important: it’s been said that everyone should spend fifteen minutes every day, for most of the dog’s life, working on training, if they want to have an optimally behaved dog.
Most people need professional help to train dogs and to deal with challenging behaviour, and since dog training and behavioral advice are not regulated, it can be difficult to choose the right person. The ideal dog trainer has a combination of good training with plenty of experience. The skill set includes knowledge, but also a level of intuition, an ability to read dogs’ body language and emotions, and a genuine understanding of what is going on in their heads. This can often only be gained with years of experience.
While word-of-mouth can be a useful way to find a good trainer, membership in a reputable professional organization offers reassurance about training methods, background education, and ethical standards.
For the sake of you and your dog, make behavior and training a serious focus from the start when you get a dog.
Table with helpful contacts.
• The Association of Pet Dog Trainers Ireland (apdt.ie)
• The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants UK and Ireland Division (m.iaabc.org/about/divisions/uk)
• The Institute of Modern Dog Trainers (imdt.uk.com)
• The Association of Pet Behavior Counsellors (apbc.org.uk)