Correcting Some Common Dog Problems - June, 2015

When your puppy or dog does something you do not like, you need to teach her not to do it. Here are three general ideas that should help you deal with most problems.

Number 1: Figure out why your dog is doing what she is doing. Is she following some deep instinct bred into her for many generations? Is she bored and full of energy? Has she discovered that this behavior gets her what she wants? If she barks in her crate and you let her out, she will try that again next time—and she will bark longer and louder because if it worked once, it will work again eventually.

Number 2: Be sure that you are the one who is in charge. I had a Lab years ago, that trained me to go get him a biscuit. I thought it was cute at first—he would come and bark at me, I would get up and follow him, he would point to the dog biscuit box and bark again, and I would deliver. Then I asked myself, “Who’s training whom here?” Aha! I changed the rules of the game. If he came and barked at me, I told him “Sit” or “Down” and maybe a few other commands. Then sometimes I would have a brilliant idea—“How ’bout a goodie?” Then I would have him respond to another command—sometimes the ever popular “balance-the-biscuit-on-your-nose trick”—before giving him a biscuit. Other times I would just praise and give him a belly rub. He still enjoyed the game, but I was back in charge.

If you have a dog that tends to be a little pushy, make him earn what he wants by responding to various commands. You do not have to bore the both of you with “Sit” and “Down” forever. Teach him some tricks, and have him do one. He will be a happier dog if he is sure you are in charge.

Number 3: Whenever possible, give your dog an alternative behavior to replace the one you do not like. I will make some suggestions later for specific problem behaviors, but we cannot cover everything, so hold this thought—it is much easier to teach your dog to do something than to teach her to do nothing.

Jumping on People –

Believe it or not, your dog’s goal in jumping on you is not to plant big, muddy paw prints on your shirt. So why does he jump up? Well, mostly because he likes you, and because you probably reward him for it part of the time by petting him, pushing him (which he sees as play), and paying attention to him.

If you really want your dog to stop jumping, you need to be consistent about not rewarding him. Never put your hands on him to push him down and then pet him—the petting is what he wants. Do not try to knee him in the chest. Unless you are more coordinated than most people are, you will not connect, and if you do connect, you could injure your dog. Here are two approaches that are safe and effective if you and everyone else in the family are consistent.

One technique that works with some dogs is to completely ignore him when he is jumping. Wear old clothes for this one! When your dog jumps up, do not say a word. Fold your arms over your chest, turn your back on the dog, and look up. He may continue to try for a bit, especially if he is used to getting a more fun response from you. However, eventually he will decide that his jumping turns you into a very boring sort of person, and he will quit. When he does quit, quietly have him sit or stand and pet him. Stay calm—you do not want to get him all excited. If he does jump up again, go into boring mode. This method requires patience from you, but it does work and is especially effective with puppies. Once your dog is convinced that jumping on you never gets him what he wants, he will be reliable about staying off.

Another approach is to give your dog a positive command—Sit or Down—before he jumps, and reward him for obeying the command. The problem with this is two-fold. First, he has to know the command, so the technique is not reliable with young puppies or with dogs that are not really trained to respond to commands reliably. Second, your dog may decide that if he jumps on you, you will talk to him and reward him—what a fun game!

Mouthing and Biting –

Mouthing, although annoying and even painful with those sharp puppy teeth, is a normal part of puppy behavior. Growling, guarding, and aggressiveness in a puppy are something else entirely. If your puppy shows signs of aggression, speak to his breeder and to your veterinarian. Do not ignore aggression in a puppy—get qualified professional help or return the pup to the breeder.

Puppies use their mouths to explore their world. They also use their mouths to play with other dogs. It is quite normal for a puppy to try to use his mouth to play with you as well, but he needs to learn that he must never put his teeth on a person.

Here are two methods that work well with most puppies. One is to stop playing with the puppy the instant he mouths you. Just say “Ouch!” and get up and ignore him for a minute or so. Then come back and play with him again, rubbing his tummy, throwing a toy for him to chase, whatever. If he puts his mouth on you, ignore him again. Many puppies will catch on very quickly. Others are more persistent. If your pup does not get it, do not just ignore him, but also leave him completely alone for a minute or so. Then return. Again, it may take a few sessions, but if you and other members of your family are consistent and if mouthing just never pays off, he will quit.

Aggressive biting is something else entirely. If your puppy or dog bares his teeth or snaps at you or any other member of your family, or if he guards his food, toys, bed, or anything else from you, ask your veterinarian or obedience instructor for a referral, and talk to a qualified dog trainer or behaviorist who is qualified to deal with aggression. Do not wait! Dogs do not bluff. If your dog threatens you, take him seriously, and if he bites you or anyone else, get help immediately.

Destructive Chewing –

Chewing is one of the great pleasures of life for many dogs. A nice, raw knucklebone or a good, hard chew toy can be the canine version of curling up with a good book. However, if your dog does not limit his pleasures to things he is supposed to chew, he can cause a lot of damage and even hurt himself.

Puppies in particular are champion chewers. Puppies begin to lose their deciduous (baby) teeth and get their permanent teeth when they are four or five months old. During this time, your puppy’s mouth will be sore and he will probably want to chew anything and everything to relieve the discomfort. Here are a few things you can do help him—and you and your things—get through teething:

  * Give your puppy ice cubes or “soupsicles” (low-sodium chicken or beef broth frozen into ice cubes)

* Give him high-quality real bones made for dogs

  * Give him raw carrots

  * If you feed dry food, soak his food in water for about 20 minutes before feeding him

  * When you can not watch him, confine him in a wire or airline crate

  * Put anything you do not want chewed and anything that might hurt your puppy out of his reach

Prevention is by far the best way to deal with chewing. If your puppy or dog likes to chew things and rip things up, then he should never—I repeat, never—be allowed to be loose unsupervised with access to things he might like to have in his mouth. Crate-train your dog, and confine him to his crate when you cannot watch him. Give him a nice legal chew toy or bone to play with in the crate. I do not advocate locking a dog up for long hours in a crate—four hours at a time should be about the maximum. If you have to be gone longer than that on a regular basis, arrange to have someone come in during the day to let him out for a while.

When you are with your dog, keep an eye on him. If he picks up something he should not have, gently take it from him while you say, “Leave it” and give him one of his own toys. Be patient—it may take him a little while to learn what is his and what is not. After all, he thinks, “your stuff all smells like you, and it’s right there, and you’re not using it, so maybe it’s okay if I have a little chew?” Just teach him, and he will catch on.

Pulling on the Leash –

Going for a walk should be pleasant for you as well as for your dog. However, there is nothing fun about being hauled down the street by a determined canine. Even a small dog can pull like crazy—and a big dog can dislocate your entire body! Besides, having control of your dog on leash is important for your safety and his.

If you are starting with a puppy, or your dog is small or reasonably easy to restrain, try the “no forward progress” approach first. When your dog starts to pull, stop in your tracks and stand still until he stops pulling. It may take him a few seconds to realize that you have stopped walking—that is okay. When he stops pulling, praise him and continue walking. If he pulls, stop. Do not worry if you do not walk too far for a few days. The important thing is to let your dog know that pulling is counterproductive.

If that does not work on your dog, try a little stronger version of the same technique. This time, instead of stopping in your tracks, you change directions. Set your hands together in front of your waist with the leash grasped in one hand. This will keep you from jerking your dog. The idea is for him to correct himself, not for you to pull on him. As soon as he starts to pull, turn and walk in another direction. Do not stop and wait for him, and do not say anything to him until he catches up with you. Then praise him and occasionally give him a treat. Most dogs learn quickly to pay attention to where you are, and not to pull ahead.

Chew on This –

Always praise your dog when he does what you want.

Some puppies and dogs, though, are just so strong and eager to see the world that they need more control. If your dog is one of these eager beavers, consider trying a head halter or pinch collar. These training tools need to fit your dog properly to be effective, and you need to learn to use them properly. A good basic obedience class (or some private lessons with a good instructor) is the best way for you to learn about both the right equipment for your dog and about training in general.

Bark, Bark, Bark! –

Barking, howling, whining, growling—it’s all dog talk. Barking is a natural means of communication for a dog. A bark can be a warning, a greeting, or an invitation to play. Your dog’s tendency to bark a little or a lot is partly inherited. Some breeds bark a lot; others bark very little. Your dog may also have learned that barking gets him what he wants—he barks and you let him in, let him out, feed him, talk to him, and play with him. Barking becomes a behavioral problem when it goes on too long or too frequently.

Dogs become problem barkers for many reasons. The first step in controlling excessive barking is to find the reason your dog barks so much. A dog that spends too much time alone may become a problem barker, particularly if he does not get enough exercise. Sights and sounds in your dog’s environment may trigger barking—not usually, a problem unless it is too frequent or lasts too long. Dogs with separation anxiety are often problem barkers. Aggressive dogs and highly territorial dogs may bark at anyone or anything that comes near. Barking is hard to stop because it is self-rewarding. You can usually reduce nuisance barking, though, with time and effort.

If your dog seems to be barking out of boredom or to get your attention, you may be able to slow him down by giving him what he wants—on your terms, of course. Make sure he gets enough exercise every day. Take him through an obedience class. Even if he does not bark in class and you do not directly address the problem there, training often helps problems of all sorts. Besides, if he is lonely and bored, he will love spending time with you in class and practicing outside of class. Do not leave your dog outdoors when you are not home. Let your neighbors know that you are trying to solve the problem. Most people will give you a little leeway if they know you are trying.

If your dog is barking to warn away intruders on “his” territory, obedience will help as well. When your dog starts to bark at someone, tell him “Down” and make sure he obeys. The down position is a submissive position and should give you control over the barking. When he is quiet, praise and reward him for “good quiet.”

Teach your dog that having people around is good for him. Have a friend walk by your yard. Have a tasty treat ready. If he stays quiet, praise him and reward him. If he barks, tell him “Down,” and when he is quiet, praise and reward. Have your friend come a bit closer and repeat the process. It may take several sessions (and several friends so that he learns that the rule applies to everyone), but eventually he should be much more tolerant of people walking near your yard. If he barks indoors, have him lie down and be quiet, and praise and reward him. Be consistent—do not encourage him to bark one time and discourage him the next.

Various types of “bark collars” are available. They work by administering a “punishment” in the form of an electrical shock, a spray of citronella (which dogs do not like) aimed at the dog’s nose, or a high-pitched sound. Although bark collars may seem like an easy solution to problem barking, they do not address the cause of the barking. If your dog barks because he is bored, he may simply replace the noise with a different behavior like digging or destructiveness. If he barks to defend his territory, he may associate the shock or other punishment from the collar with the person he sees as a threat, and he may become aggressive. If he barks because he is afraid or anxious, a collar that punishes him will frighten him more.

Digging –

Digging is an instinct for all dogs. Some breeds—terrier breeds and Dachshunds in particular—were bred to dig vermin and game out of holes in the ground, so they are even more eager to dig than the average dog.

One way to stop a determined digger from tearing up your whole yard is to give him his own digging range. Pick a spot for him, preferably a shady spot with loose sand or sandy soil (it is cleaner than clay or loam). If necessary, consider making him a sandbox for digging. Bury a treat or toy that your dog likes, then bring him to the spot, and when he notices the scent of the treat, encourage him to dig. You dig a little with your hands if necessary to give him the idea. Praise him when he digs, and when he reaches the treat or toy. Repeat a few times over the next few days. If you see your dog digging somewhere else, tell him “Leave it,” take him to his spot, and encourage him to dig there. He will get the idea after a few days.

Aside from being there and stopping him, there are ways to discourage your dog from digging. Some of these methods work with some dogs but not all. If your dog tends to dig in one spot, maybe near a gate, you may be able to discourage him by filling in his hole with rocks or concrete. I stopped my dog from digging up one section of a flower garden by burying chicken wire about three inches deep. It did not interfere with the plant roots, and my dog did not like hitting that wire with his feet.

Some people use chemicals and other substances to discourage digging. Black pepper sprinkled on the area stops some dogs. Some people bury mothballs, but they are toxic and they do not make your yard smell too great. Several commercial products are available that are supposed to stop digging, but they do not always work, and they do not provide your dog with an alternative. If he was digging out of boredom, he will find something else to do, and it may not be any more agreeable to you than the digging was. Retraining and redirecting energy is the best solution.