handling problem behaviours

Handling Problem Behaviours

Quite often what we deem problem behaviours in our dogs is either a natural behaviour to them, done at an inappropriate time for us, or a learnt behaviour from us that we didn’t even realise we were reinforcing and sometimes. Something what we deem to be a problem behaviour is just dog doing a comfort behaviour in a moment of stress.

Before we address any problem behaviours, we should always assess why it is happening in the first place. Why it is happening, determines how we go about solving the problem. Approaching the situation with the wrong method of solving things can potentially compound the problem.

Some Behavioural issues are caused by anxiety. Training alone cannot always completely solve problems driven by anxiety. One in five dogs in Australia have been clinically diagnosed with some form of local or general anxiety condition. Anxiety is a medical condition that the dog is not in control of and professional help from a Veterinary Behaviourist is essential.

A Training Issue or a Behavioural Issue 

Owners often get frustrated with their dogs when they are not listening to their commands. There could be a number of reasons for them not doing so. 

If the dog is overwhelmed or overstimulated, it may be due to stress or overexposure. This can be caused by different factors such as environment, others within the environment or physical discomfort in the dog. If the dog is in physical discomfort, then we should seek medical help immediately. If the dog cannot listen to what is being asked of it, then it is no longer using the thinking, rational side of the brain, this is a behavioural issue. 

Problem behaviours completed by a dog that is overstimulated, fearful, anxious or in pain are not choosing to complete them. We need to address their arousal level or physical pain before attempting to train them.

What Does It Mean When a Dog Gets Overstimulated? 

A dog that is overstimulated is a dog that’s arousal level has spiked too high, it has gone above yellow on our diagram and is in Amber or Red. The emotional, non-thinking part of the brain has overridden the thinking brain. The dog has one goal at this point and that is to make itself comfortable again, it is in survival mode and the only thing that concerns it right now is self-preservation. Its ability to process information is significantly compromised, so it will no longer be able to hear us. Click here to read about the dogs mind.

How to Handle an Over Stimulated Dog

When dogs are overstimulated or overwhelmed, they can display behaviours that owners may describe as ‘problem behaviours’. These include aggression, barking, lunging, attention seeking, mouthing or even humping. These behaviours are potentially deemed to be a problem because they may be seen by the owner as inappropriate or inconvenient at the time.

When a dog is over stimulated it is not thinking clearly, it is not doing these behaviours because it wants to. It is doing these behaviours with the goal of self-preservation in a moment of stress. It is a coping mechanism for the dog.

When out in public, it is the owner that decided where they have taken the dog at this moment in time, not the dog. The dog did not choose to be in the situation it has found its self in. We should not blame the dog, discipline or reprimand the dog for these behaviours. We must recognise that the dog is distressed.

Our goal when handling these situations is to make the dog comfortable again by bringing its arousal level down into the green and yellow zones. If the dog is comfortable, then it will no longer be over stimulated or over whelmed, it will no longer be doing the behaviours we had deemed to be a problem. 

If the dog is in amber, showing signs of discomfort, we can offer it a pacifier. Use what the dog finds rewarding, such as food rewards to make it feel better and bring it down through yellow and back into green. 

A common question an owner may ask in this situation is: “am I not just rewarding the dog for doing ‘bad’ behaviour?” and the answer is no. You are not rewarding the dog for a behaviour in this instance, you are making the dog feel better at that moment in time. No amount of rewards in the world can encourage a dog to want to feel stressed, fearful or anxious. 

Reprimanding a scared, stressed or anxious dog is not acceptable and overall, will compound the problem. Compounding the negative association, it is already building. Increasing the likelihood of escalating this dog into a fight response and it repeating the same behaviour the next time it encounters this or a similar situation.

Reprimanding or restraining the dog may suppress the dog it in that moment, the danger is that we may teach it that it cannot growl, bark or lunge but that is treating the symptoms and not addressing why the behaviours are happening in the first place. 

As a gauge, use the food rewards and ask for a known behaviour to give the dog an option that it knows well and finds rewarding to bring clarity. For example, if the dog knows sit, use the food rewards to hold the dog’s attention, ask it to ‘sit’ and reward it for completing the behaviour. if they are prepared to take the food and complete the behaviour, then we can try to communicate with them again, bringing the arousal level back down gradually so that they are in yellow and thinking clearly again.  

This is not just to get the dog to complete the physical behaviour of ‘sit’ this is an attempt gauge how high the arousal level of the dog is. In this moment I want to know three things: 

  • Can you hear me?

  • Can you process what I am saying?

  • Can you complete the behaviour? 

If the dog can hear you and process the information, then it is using its thinking, rational side of its brain again, its in the green or yellow zone, and we can begin to communicate with, calm and teach the dog what we would like them to be doing. 

If the dog refuses food, cannot complete the behaviour or escalates its behaviour then the dog is beyond the point that we can communicate with it. We must decrease the stress by increasing the distance between the dog and what it is that is causing that stress. 

At this point, the dog is no longer able to think clearly, it is not responsive to food or verbal cues because the point of stress is too high a distraction. At that moment in time, the only thing that the dog is concerned about is self-preservation.  

Training Issues 

If the dog is thinking clearly and deciding not to choose the option the owner is asking of it, it will be for a very simple reason. Either the dog is not motivated by what we are asking it to do, and so is not inclined to complete the behaviour, or the dog is more motivated by the option that it is choosing over the owners. In this case, it is down to the owner to reduce the distraction and increase the value of reward for the dog when it completes the desired behaviour.  

When we are handling training problems we must remind ourselves of the fundamentals of dog psychology. Dogs have no theory of mind and are completely self-serving. They are never doing anything to influence how you feel and are only interested in achieving positive outcomes for themselves. 

When addressing a behaviour that is driven by the dog consciously making a decision to achieve something we would deem to be a problem, we do have the right to step in and disagree with it. Being aware of how present the dogs brain is, is essential, because this should never be taken further than an interruption. It is important that we do not just tell the dog what not to do, with ‘no’ and ‘stop it’. It is important to teach the dog what we would prefer them to do instead and make this behaviour more rewarding.

Timing of Interruption

An interruption of the dog’s behaviour does not teach the dog what you want it to do. If you ONLY teach your dog what it is you do not want then it has little to no chance of getting it right in the future. It is most important to teach the dog what you would prefer them to be doing once you have gained their attention.

An interruption should be as far as we ever take a situation when we need to address a problem behaviour. The goal is to use an attention grabber to gain the dogs attention. Once we have their attention, they are no longer completing the unwanted behaviour and so have moved on. It is important that we do as well. Then we can give them direction. We can then teach the dog what we would prefer it to be doing now.

An attention grabber is something like their name, a whistle or a clap, a noise that will stop them in their tracks. It is important to use an interrupter at an appropriate level and this will change according to the dog and its arousal level. For example, whispering may not gain the dogs attention, but a loud shout may be too harsh and scare the dog. We should be looking to gain the dogs attention quickly, but without taking it too far and causing fear.

It is very important to remember how quickly our dogs brain moves on. If we catch the dog in the act, or within 0.5 seconds of them completing the behaviour, we can interrupt them and then communicate for it to do something else, the interruption will have made it clear that the behaviour we disturbed is what we were unhappy about and gained their attention. We cannot reprimand our dogs retrospectively. Meaning unless we catch our dogs in the act, we cannot reprimand them for doing any unwanted behaviours.

For example, if we walk into a room and we catch a dog in the physical act of urinating where it should not, then we can interrupt that behaviour, gain his attention and then direct them outside or to their pee pad, praising the puppy once it is outside. Whereas, if we were to walk into a room and there is a puddle of urine on the floor and we can see that our dog has urinated on the carpet. But it has finished, even one second ago, if we interrupt that dog then, we are timing it so that it would think that we are telling it off for walking, not urinating. This can create fear and confusion for our dogs and break down the relationship.

Inherent Behaviours

Some behaviours are inherent within certain dogs, such as digging and herding in some breeds may be so ingrained in their brains that we may need to look at ways for them to have that outlet that will not be destructive. Breeds like dachshunds love to dig, and so providing an area they are allowed to, may prevent them doing it in places we would not like. Collies and Kelpies that have in inherited need to herd, we can learn some communication techniques that involve stimulating that side of the brain and they may benefit greatly from dog sports such as agility and fly-ball as outlets of energy to tame the need to herd everything. 

When handling unwanted behaviours that the dogs are genetically programmed to complete, it is important to give them a healthy outlet. A dog that is denied these all together may become frustrated and stressed which may cause greater problems in the long run.