Problems : introduction

When is a dog's behavior a "problem" and what are the general approaches to solving "problems" ? This article is intended as an introduction and overview. It should be read before reading sections on specific problems .
There's overlap of the topic of Problems with the topics of PUPPY REARING and TRAINING, because these are the basis for problem prevention. DOG CARE methods can also be relevant to prevention and to management of an existing problem.. Issues related to Working Dog behavior are dealt with in the WORKING DOGS section.

update 2020 : I wrote almost all of this some years ago, thinking it too incomplete to put on the site. But recently I re-read it and decided it's good to go. Added just a bit to two sections.

Problems : introduction to behavior problems

by Pam Green, © 2015

When is a dog's behavior a "problem" ?

What most people call a "dog behavior problem" is usually more accurately described as "owner dissatisfaction with the dog's behavior". The dog is usually not unhappy with this behavior, indeed usually finds that behavior satisfying. It's the owner who is unhappy or distressed or actually harmed. That's a really critcal change of perspective because owner dissatisfaction with the dog's behavior is the leading cause of dogs being discarded, abandoned to the pound (city or county shelter), abandoned on a lonely country road, or surrendered to rescue. And getting dumped at a shelter or country road is the number one cause of death , especially death of relatively young dogs, probably equal to the total of all other causes of death combined..

Have I shocked you ? I hope so ! And I've made this point at several veterinary symposia and conferences, probably shocking most of the vets and behaviorists attending. The owner has a problem with the dog's behavior. The owner has to decide what to do about that problem. The owner has to take responsibility for deciding to do one of the following Four Basic Choices (this scheme comes from other writers, mostly Dr Myrna Milani DVM, but I express it in my own way) :

If you have guessed that I consider (c) to be usually the best choice , with (b) being a good choice for some kinds of "problem", you would be right. If you have guessed that I consider (d) to very rarely be appropriate or morally acceptable in its abandonment mode, though it can be acceptable and even desirable where dog does get transferred to a home where the dog will be valued and cherished and safe, you'd be right. If you have guessed that I consider that (a) rarely works for long (unless the objectionability of the behavior is very slight, in which case recognizing the triviality is really solution (b)), and that it puts the dog at risk of eventually being gotten rid of (solution (d)), you'd be right.

In reality, these Four Choices blend into one another or over-lap in many cases. Or one evolves from one choice to another. I think I will defer giving examples until later in this article, because other aspects need to be discussed first.

Is this behavior dangerous to the dog or to anyone else ?

(the crucial first question to ask yourself)

If the behavior puts the dog into danger or puts anyone else, human or dog or whomever, in danger, then you cannot chose (a) or (b), because the problem is not going to go away by itself. Choice (d) is unacceptable if it means putting the dog into the hands of someone who is less than fully capable of handling the dog in a way that prevents danger to all.

If the behavior is not dangerous or only trivially so, then you have the full range of choice. Just remember that choices (a) and (b) will result in the behavior persisting at currrrent level or becoming more frequent and more exaggeratted.

Normal vs abnormal behaviors

gentically natural , thus inherrently enjoyed by the dog

A lot of the behaviors that we humans consider to be "problems" are really natural dog behaviors and behaviors that are naturally enjoyable to the dog. Often they are behaviors that have a long evolutionary history and were needed for the ancestral canid's survival. Other behaviors are natural to a particular genetic line or breed because generations of dog breeders and users have selected many generations of dogs for those very behaviors. This is especially true of those breeds that were created for some working purpose : the herding dogs , the hunting dogs (retrievers, pointers and setters, hounds, etc) the vermin exterminator dogs (terriers) , the watch-dogs (alarm sounders, ie barkers) , the guarding dogs and battle dogs, and (alas!) the dog-fighting dogs. These behaviors are more or less genetically hard wired and are enjoyed by dogs because "it feels good to his genes", also called self-rewardng behaviors.

Many natural dog behaviors become "problems" to people because they don't fit in well with life in human society and life inside a human home. Consider a few examples : .

naturalized by training or experience : learned behavior that is associated with reward (enjoyed) or with removal of something unpleasant.

If a dog has previously experienced pleasant consequences ("reward") for a behavior, the dog will perform that behavior more readily and / or more vigourously in the future. The more established the history of reward, the more established the rewarded behavior is likely to be. Behaviors that have been rewarded only sometimes and unpredictabley (ie on a "slot machine" schedule) become quite strongly trained and very resistant to ceasing when there's a long period of no reward. This is the basis for humans to deliberately train a dog to do a particular behavior , whether it's something simple and trivial, like "shake hands" , or something very complex and highly useful , like the array of helpful tasks that a Disability Assistance Dog is trained to do.

Humans often actually reward a dog without being aware that what they are doing is rewarding (pleasant) to the dog. Sometimes one is rewarding a desirable behavior , but too often one is unwittingly rewarding an undesirable behavior. For many dogs any form of attention is rewarding, even attention the human intends to be unpleasant to the dog. Eg dogs and kids sometimes feel that it's better to be scolded than to be ignored. This topic of unintended reward is a big one.

Many of the most valuable services a dog can be taught to do are motivated by a combination of learning-by-reward and intrinsic hard-wired genetically rewards. A well trained herding dog is a super example. A life-saving Search and Rescue dog is another example.

Reward based training can also be a wonderful way of getting rid of or at least controlling undesirable behaviors. Largely by training the dog to do some other behavior that is incompatble with doing the undesired one and is also something that is acceptable. Eg to grab a toy instead of barking at a visitor whom you admit into the house, because a dog simply cannot bark when he has a toy in his teeth. Eg to Sit when greeting a person instead of jumping on them.

The removal or ending or diminution of something unpleasant is also a form of reward for the behavior that immediately preceeds it. Eg a dog has a thorn in its paw, handler calls out "whoa" (stand still) or "come" and then soon as dog and handler are together the handler removes the thorn. (this example assumes the dog already knows "whoa" or "come" though a dog who on his own idea either stands still waiting for handler or does a 3 legged run to the handler will also be rewarded when handler removes the thorn. note : this thorn scenario occurs often enough in my life). Eg a dog who badly needs to urinate or defecate and who scratches at the door or barks , with result that a person comes and opens the door, gets a pleasurable relief from the discomfort of full bladder or bowel when he voids same outdoors. One can train a dog to ring a bell hung on a cord from the door knob to get the person to open the door. (note : the person too is being trained).

not everyone finds the same behavior objectionable, and few behaviors are always desirable or always objectionable.

A behavior one person might find objectionable another might find desirable. As an obvious example, some people don't want their dog joining them on their bed Others (myself very much so) would feel very deprived and dissappointed if they didn't have at least one dog as a bed-warmer and cuddle dog.

There are a few behaviors that just about everyone finds objectionable. The obvious example is a dog biting family members or guests. Though most people would not object to a burglar or personal assailant getting bitten. And a Police K9 patrol dog is valued for his willingness and ability to bite the "bad guy" while being a sweetheart marshmellow at home and a gracious recipient of hugs and petting at school visits.

Many behaviors are acceptable or desireable in one context or situation and unacceptable or problematic in another context or situation. The example in the preceding paragraph in regards to biting as usually unacceptable but desirable in certain contexts. A dog wanting to be given attention and petting is viewed by most people as being desirable most of the time, but not in some situations where it becomes "obnoxious". A dog barking briefly to announce a vistor or a lurking potential intruder is generally valued, but a dog who barks for long periods (eg at squirrels or at nothing at all) is highly objectionable (to neighbors if not to owner). And even people who love having their dog share their bed would rather the dog did not do so when the dog is soaking wet or covered in mud or has had a recent "close encounter of the mephitic kind" (skunk sprayed) or perhaps is emitting brimstone farts.

Behavior problem vs health issue ?

When is the problem really behavioral and when is it really medical ? Every behavior has some influence on health for better or worse , and every health problem has some influence on behavior , at least during the time that health problem is occurring. Some examples of health issues causing behavior changes :

Any time there is a significant change in your dog's behavior, you have to consider that there may be a health issue at the cause and there might be an adverse impact on health if the behavior continues. Some behavior changes should prompt a vet appointment, perhaps immediately or within a day, perhaps less urgently. A dog who stops eating or , worse yet, stops drinking is almost certainly in need of a vet exam. A dog who is peeing a lot more in quantity or frequency may have a health issue (and usually the dog is also drinking more, but you may not notice that as quickly as the extra peeing), allowing for increased water intake during hotter weather.

Sometimes the cessation of a behavior you dislike is a manifestation of a health problem. Eg the dog who normally jumps up on sofa or bed but now does not might be suffering pain or disability in his legs or back, and you can't just say "wonderful" because that pain is going to manifest in other behaviors that are undesirable, plus of course it's a hardship on the dog to be in pain.

Behavior modification (training) vs Management (prevention of oppertunity)

Behavior modification or training is when the person thinks up and follows a plan of teaching the dog to behave differently. This usually requires an intelligent plan by the person (the plan may be designed by someone else) and a dedciation to actually doing the plan, which involves effort , often sustained work, by the person. If the first training plan is not getting good results, then it's time to devise and work a different plan. Devising alternative plans may well require consulting a trainer or behaviorist or simply doing some reading in the problem solving literature.

Management is the prevention of oppertunity for the dog to perform an undesirable behavior. The dog may still perform that behavior if a new oppertunity occurs. However for some problems , management is the easier and / or more effective solution. For some problems management is the only realistic solution

Generally while a behavior modification program is going on, it's essential to do some management to prevent oppertunities for the dog to perform the undesired behavior and to to prevent the dog from obtaining any kind of enjoyment out of doing it (hard to prevent when the reward is coming from inside the dog). Prevention management while attempting re-training has the added advantage that if the attempted training is less than fully successful, at least the humans have developed a management method that can be continued.

If you re-read the earlier sections of this article, especially examples of dealing with behaviors that are natural to the dog, you can see which suggestions are mainly training and which are mainly management.

basics of behavior modification

(update: this is one of the two sub-topics I though needed to be completed before I posted the page. but it's a complex topic.)

Your goal is either to teach a new behavior , usually through some version of "opperant conditioning" , or to change the way the feels and the behavior that results from that feeling, usually through "desensitization and counter-conditioning", which are based on "classical conditioning" (also called "Pavlovian conditioning". (In reality there's quite a bit of overlap between opperant and classical, and only in Psych courses do you really need to dissect this.)

What we usually think of as "training" is mostly opperant conditioning, although when it's done mostly with rewards ("positive reinforcement") the student dog is also being classically conditioned to enjoy the training and to want to participate. (The human too may be conditioned to enjoy training.) Indeed, I think that learning to enjoy learning is the most important lesson of all for dog or human.

OMG, I don't want to write a thesis on positive reinforcement , negative reinfocement, positive punishment , and negative punishment. These have been much better discussed elsewhere. They all play a role , though we want to rely on positive reinforcement (reward for a desired response by the dog) and negative punishment (withhold the wanted reward when the dog does not give the desired response) as our main tools. For complex behaviors , the end goal is reached by a series of steps, a process called "shaping".

I also don't want to write a thesis on desensitization and counter-conditioning These have been much better discussed elsewhere.

basics of management

(update: this is the other one of the sub-topics I though needed to be completed before I posted the page. but it's a complex topic.)

Just think "what can go wrong ?" and then think "how can I prevent that ?".

Management methods include :

Philosophy of Choices

This is really the Four Basic Choices that I outlined earlier in this article. Now it's time to re-visit these and to give examples, showing how one may change tactics .

First I'd like to re-list the Four Choices, because they may sound a bit different to you now

Or we could just boil this down to the well known "Serenity Mantra" : "give me the courage (determination) to change the things I can (should) change, the serenity to accpet the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference"

Now let's work through some examples :

Now it is time to return to the PROBLEMS index and to the BOOKS index for books on training and problem solving.


Related topics :

site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 7/21/2015 revised 10/29/2015, 5/24/2020
return to top of page return to Site Index