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Common Dog Behavior Problems and How to Solve Them

More than 43 million American families share their living space with a dog. We take them with us on vacation, buy them expensive treats and fancy clothes, and even let them sleep on our beds. But sometimes dog behavior problems get in the way of an otherwise happy relationship, landing the pup in serious trouble – or worse, the local animal shelter.

Dealing with dog behavior problems quickly is the key to keeping everyone in the house happy and healthy.

Destructive Dog Behavior

If you've ever come home to find your favorite shoes shredded, or the sofa unstuffed, then you've dealt with destructive dog behavior. Unfortunately, most dog owners' first reaction is punishment, but this isn't the answer. Dogs aren't capable of making the connection between their behavior and your destroyed sofa, so unless you catch your dog in the act of pulling the stuffing out of the couch cushions, he won't know what you're angry about.

Instead, prevention should be your goal. With a destructive dog, crating him is probably the best choice. Not only will he be kept away from your furniture, but he'll be safe from other dangers as well. Don't look at crating as punishment. Look at it as a safe place for your dog to stay while you can't be supervising him.

Some dogs destroy things out of boredom or anxiety, so giving your pup something else to do when you're gone can help. There are a variety of toys designed to occupy your dog's mind, such as puzzle cubes you can fill with kibble. When the dog rolls the cube, bits of food fall out, rewarding him for playing. Another option is a Kong toy filled with treats or peanut butter. The dog will be so busy trying to get the last goodies out of the toy that he won't have time to chew up your shoes.

House Training Problems

When your previously house trained dog begins to urinate or defecate in the house, your first response might be to think the dog is "angry" with you, or that he's "getting even with you" for leaving him alone. Dogs don't experience anger the same way people do, and they certainly don't exact revenge. But they can get upset about changes in the household, like a new baby or a move.

The first thing you must do if your dog backslides on housebreaking is to take him to the vet. Before you can begin training, you need to know your pup doesn't have any medical issues like diabetes or bowel problems that could cause him to lose control of his bladder or bowels.

Once medical issues are ruled out, it's time to get back to basics in your training. Rather than allowing your dog access to food all day, begin a regular feeding schedule so you can more easily monitor his bathroom breaks. Next, get a crate. Whenever your dog is out of your sight, he must be crated. No unattended access to the house should be given. Finally, when you are home, keep your dog on a leash and keep him near to you. He should not be allowed to wander out of your sight. Keeping him close to you allows you to monitor and correct his behavior, rather than simply cleaning up after the fact.

Food Aggression

Of all the dog behavior problems you might encounter, food aggression can be one of the most serious. It's easy for children and other pets to wander too close to a food bowl and set off a reaction, so getting help for your food aggressive dog is critical. Like with housebreaking issues, your first step to curing food aggression is a trip to the vet to rule out any medical problems that might be causing your dog pain or anxiety.

Next, remove your dog and his food from sources of aggression. Feed him in another room where there are no other pets or people. This helps him relax, and ensures that no one gets accidentally bitten.

Finally, work on desensitization. This involves a structured plan to acclimate your dog to the source of his aggression, whether it's another dog or a person. Desensitization is not a novice dog trainer's trick, and should never be attempted without the help of a professional trainer who has experience working with aggressive dogs. It's potentially dangerous, and not to be taken lightly.

Overly Enthusiastic Greeting of Guests

It's cute when your Golden Retriever puppy jumps up to be petted every time someone comes to the door. Not so when that 12 pound pup grows to be 60 or 70 pounds and knocks Grandma over as she enters.

Dealing with jumping is best done when your dog is young. By not allowing him to form the habit in the first place, you're in a much better position to prevent it from forming in the future. But if you've adopted an older dog, or if your early training didn't include proper greeting behavior, you can still fix the problem.

Start by minimizing the fuss when you or others enter the house. If your dog is generally excited when you come home from work, simply ignore him until he calms down. Meeting him with your own enthusiastic greeting will only increase the problem. Instead, go about your coming-home activities as if he weren't there. Once he's sitting calmly, give your pup a treat and a scratch behind the ears, and walk away as if coming home is no big deal.

To stop him from jumping on guests, enlist the help of a friend. Have your friend ring the bell and come in the house, and when the dog jumps on her, simply turn her back. By giving the dog the opposite reaction (ignoring him) he is trying to enlist, you will force him to come up with new ways to get attention. When he acts appropriately (by sitting still), immediately reward him with a treat.

Consistency is the key when teaching your dog appropriate greeting behaviors. Allowing him to jump on some people but not others will only confuse him, so make sure every member of your family is working to retrain your pooch.

Leash Pulling

Dogs love to go for walks. There is so much to see and smell and they're in a terrible hurry to see it all. The funny thing is, the harder they pull, the faster they get there. Or at least that's how it seems to the dog.

And that's what makes breaking this habit so difficult – it's rewarding for the dog, and anything that rewarding is repeated. To effectively deal with leash pulling, you need to make it an unrewarding behavior.

There are two tricks to breaking this bad doggy habit. One is to simply be still. The instant your dog's leash gets taut, stop. Don't take another step until the leash goes slack. This teaches the dog that he won't get any closer to what he's after unless he relaxes.

The other method involves actively moving the dog away from what he's heading for, by turning around. Again, the instant you feel tautness in the leash, turn 180 degrees and head in the opposite direction. Not only does the dog not get what he wants, he's actually being taken away from it. The only problem with this method is that the dog may very well find something just as interesting in the other direction.

Whichever method you choose, it's critical that you are unerringly consistent in your training. If you let the dog pull his leash – even once – you will likely undo all your training. So be prepared to spend a lot of your walk time standing still (or turning in circles) before your dog really learns to walk nicely.

Of course, you could also use a different collar designed just for dogs that pull. There are many varieties available, but the most humane version is probably a head halter or Gentle Leader. These special collars loop around the dog's nose and give you much greater control over the pup. Be aware, though, that training your dog to wear one of these can be an entirely new challenge.

Counter Surfing

Stealing food off the kitchen counter or dining room table isn't just an annoyance; it can be dangerous as well. Your dog might ingest chicken bones or other dangerous foods or even accidentally swallow a knife, so training your dog kitchen manners is important.

As with most dog training, prevention is the easiest, most effective training method. If you don't feed your dog from the table, he's less likely to see your food as his. If you must give him table scraps, always put them in his bowl; don't feed him directly from your plate.

Dealing with an established counter surfer is a little more difficult. First, make it a habit to not leave food where the dog can easily reach it. For smaller dogs, that means not putting your plate on the coffee table, but for larger breeds, even a plate pushed far back on the kitchen counter won't be out of reach. Make it a habit to put food away when you aren't around to supervise.

Also, pay close attention to the dog when he's in the kitchen with you. The instant he lifts his nose to the counter, correct him. Make it clear that he has no business investigating any food outside his own food dish. A sharp "No!" is generally enough to redirect his attention to something else. Again, consistency is critical. You must always correct him; otherwise he will learn that sometimes it's okay. Likewise, never give your dog the opportunity to fail. In other words, don't leave him alone with a tempting treat on the counter. If he eats it, he will have learned that it's okay to steal food only when your back is turned, and that's not a lesson you want to teach him.

Excessive Barking

Barking problems are generally only an issue with dogs that are left outside for long periods of time. They get bored, and they want your attention, so they're asking for it. If your outdoor dog barks continuously, consider bringing him in the house for some interaction with the family.

If your indoor dog is barking too much, however, it may be for other reasons. Perhaps you've just adopted him, and he's not yet used to the noises and activity in your home. Or maybe he's watching the birds or squirrels (or neighborhood cat) in the yard and warning them away. Whatever the reason for the barking, it's important to note that yelling is generally ineffective, and may just make the behavior worse. To your dog, you yelling is the same as him barking. In other words, he's yelling at the squirrel, and now you are, too, so he must be right!

Rather than reinforcing the behavior, put it on cue. Simply put, you want to train your dog to bark on command, so you have control. By teaching him to "speak" you can also easily teach him to "be quiet."

Teaching a dog to speak is simply a matter of capturing the desired behavior (the bark) and reinforcing it with a reward. When your dog begins to bark, say "Speak!" When he barks again, give him a treat. Do this a few times and your dog will quickly learn that "speak" means bark.

Once you've taught him to reliably respond to the speak command, it's just a matter of reversing the training by reinforcing the "quiet" command and appropriate response. Give the command to "speak" and then immediately after he barks, say "quiet" and reward him. At first the reward should be immediate, but then gradually lengthen the time between saying the command and giving the reward so the dog understands that simply doing nothing is earning him the reward. Eventually, he'll learn that quiet means stop barking – even when he's yelling at the neighbor's cat.

Dealing with dog behavior problems can seem to be a daunting task, but when you consider the lifetime of love and joy you receive from your pet, it's a job worth doing. Patience and consistent training will solve many of your dog's behavior issues, but if serious problems arise, consider consulting a professional trainer for advice.



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