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The Treatment of Behavior Problems: A Behaviorists Secret

By Christine D. Calder, DVM, DACVB | Nov 01, 2020

Behavior problems are one of the leading reasons why pets lose their homes and sometimes their lives. When their pet has a behavior problem, many pet owners are not sure what to do or who can help them. Some will consult with their veterinarian or trainers while others will research online or ask a friend. Online searches often result in a multitude of websites containing conflicting opinions and solutions. These can be confusing and sometimes even dangerous.

In dogs, there are many different behavior problems ranging from aggression to house-soiling and from anxiety to compulsive behaviors. Some dogs have a bite history while others refuse to leave the front porch. During thunderstorms, many hide in the bathtub or under the bed. Some dogs try to bite the veterinarian and others bark and lunge when on leash. Regardless of the behavior, there are five basic principles to every treatment plan.

Part I: Management

Management is always the first step when it comes to the treatment of behavior problems. If your dog charges the door when visitors arrive, place your dog in a “safe haven” away from guests until they have entered the home. Teach your dog to wear a basket muzzle if he has a bite history or if you worry that he might bite. Using window film may reduce barking out the window while tools such as a front clip harness may reduce pulling on leash and provide more control.

Part II: Communication

Often with behavior problems, there is a breakdown in communication between pets and their people. Frustration, embarrassment, and often desperation lead to misunderstandings and a break down in relationships. In order to become better communicators, we must learn how to “speak dog.”

While humans use words to communicate, dogs use their bodies. The position of their tail, the lowering of their head, the position of their ears, and the whites of their eyes all tell us a story about what they are thinking and feeling. Once we know what our dogs are telling us, we can then use that information to manage our dog’s behavior and help it make better choices.

In addition to reading body language, training can help us communicate clearly with dogs. Training is not behavior modification. Teaching your dog behaviors such as eye contact, targeting (“touch”), “sit”, “come”, and where you want it to “place” gives opportunities to reinforce your dog for desired behaviors.

When teaching new behaviors, it is important not to correct your dog for mistakes. Training methods which focus on “mistakes”, “corrections”, and basically stopping behaviors often result in side effects such as fear and anxiety, making behaviors worse and not better. Positive reinforcement such as a food rewards, game of fetch or tug, and for some dogs, petting, is the preferred method to capture, shape, and reward desired behaviors.

Daily reinforcement in the form of SMART x 50 or See Mark And Reward Training (Kathy Sdao - Plenty in Life is Free) can help you focus on desired behaviors rather than undesired ones. Count out 50 pieces of your dog’s food every day and stash it in containers around the house. If you catch your dog doing something you like, reward her with a piece of food and walk on. Once you are marking 50 behaviors every day, increase to 100 and later 150 behaviors every day. Remember to keep a container by the front door to mark and reward your dog for quiet behavior at the door.

Part III: Tools and Basic Needs

Today, there are a large number of tools available to help manage behaviors such as head collars, front clip harnesses, leashes, gates, ex-pens, and crates. Clickers can be used as markers for communication and even remote activated treat dispenses such as the “Treat and Train” or “Pet Tutor” are available to reward desired behaviors from a distance. These tools are helpful to reduce the practice of unwanted behavior and in some cases reduce the need for behavior modification.

Food dispensing and puzzle toys are also considered tools. Items such as a snuffle mat, LickiMat™, stuffed Kong, West Paw toys, and many more can help manage behaviors such as separation anxiety, storm phobia, and even fear of unfamiliar people. Feeding out of these tools gives your dog something to focus on in its safe haven and can reduce stress when attaching a leash or placing a harness over your dog’s head. You can also use these tools at the veterinary hospital, when giving your dog a bath, and to help build good relationships with people or dogs.

In addition to using tools, basic needs such as physical exercise and mental enrichment are necessary to reduce overall stress levels and promote relaxation. Daily walks and games such as playing with a “Flirt Pole” (squishyfacestudio.com) or a game of fetch can be both physically and mentally stimulating while building positive relationships with people.

Part IV: Behavior Modification

Behavior modification is the method used to make long term changes with behavior. This is where we change emotional responses and reinforce the dog for making better choices. For example, dogs can be reinforced for choosing to make eye contact on walks instead of barking, growling, or lunging at another dog. Methods such as “Open Bar: Closed Bar” help the dog associate the presence of a trigger with good things while lowering arousal levels, ultimately changing the dog’s response. Food “rains from the sky” in the presence of a trigger (Open Bar) and dries up when the trigger disappears (Closed Bar).

Before behavior modification can take place, a basic understanding of dog body language and training skills are needed. Practice of foundational skills is key. The dog should easily provide eye contact and other focus behaviors such as targeting. Relaxation on a mat can be useful when working with aggression between dogs as well as help with many anxieties and fears: noise and storm phobias and generalized anxiety. Behavior modification is a slow process which often takes several sessions before noticeable changes in behavior become evident.

Part V: Medications

Medications are often needed to lower overall anxiety and arousal levels while increasing learning potentials. There are different types of medications with some being used on an as needed basis and others every day regardless of triggers. Since there are very few medications dedicated to just animals, many of these medications are human. Many of these medications are very safe to use and can make a big difference when it comes to changing your dog’s behavior.