Earlier this month, we shared two blog posts discussing factors that affect your dog's behavior. This post covered training and genetics, and this post covered socialization. Training, genetics, and socialization are the three most important factors that will determine how your puppy/dog behaves. However, there's a fourth variable as well that is often overlooked: You.
Did you know that, as trainers, we often deal with behavioral issues that were, at least in some part, created by a well-meaning owner? Sometimes even the smallest cues that we either purposely or inadvertently give to our dogs can have massive impacts on their behavior. Every interaction we have with our dogs is a learning experience for them. We're either reinforcing something good or reinforcing/allowing something bad. This might seem a little overwhelming, so let's break this down a little into some simple, real-world examples of behavioral issues that can be created by an owner/handler.
Fear of storms/thunderstorm anxiety is almost always created. There are very few puppies that are born naturally afraid of storms. With young, newborn puppies, it would more so be the loud noises (thunder/lightning) accompanying the storm that they would be fearful of - not the storm itself. Anyway, back to the topic at hand here. Let's say a bad storm blows through with lots of loud thunder and lightning. It's the first one your puppy/dog has experienced, and the loud noises have made him a bit worried. He comes over to you for guidance, and you immediately reassure him with some petting and tell him "it's okay." In that instance, when you were trying to comfort your dog, you actually told him that it's okay to be scared. He was nervous, and you verbally told him "it's okay," and then you rewarded him for being nervous with a pat. Dogs are very literal creatures and typically take things at face-value, which is exactly what happens when we try to comfort our dogs during storms or at other times when they might be nervous/anxious... It can backfire big time.
So what's the better way to handle this? Instead of rewarding/reassuring the nervousness, it's your job to tell your dog that you aren't worried and that he shouldn't be either. How do you do this? By implementing your training. Tell your dog to go to "place," or put him in a down/stay, and then go about your business as usual. When he sees that you're not worried and that nothing changes when a storm blows through, he's going to realize that he shouldn't be worried either.
This is another behavioral issue we see a lot that, at least in some part, is typically created. Separation anxiety can be created in many different ways... Here are just a couple examples of how it starts and can quickly escalate out of control:
Problem: Your dog is with you 24/7 and allowed to follow you from room to room all day every day. You take him with you when you go places. He never learns independence and how to cope with life on his own. Solution: Use training to implement some independence-building exercises starting at an early age. Teach your dog a "kennel" command and give him some crate-time each day (crate should be a fun/safe place for your dog). Use a "stay" or "place" command to prevent your dog from following you from room-to-room (he needs to learn that he'll be okay if you walk into the bathroom without him). Board your dog when he's young. Give him the opportunity to be away from you for a night or two while he's still young.... It is MUCH easier for a puppy to adapt to boarding than it is for a three-year-old dog that has never been boarded before.
Problem: Your puppy/dog whines the first time you put him in a crate. You immediately let him out of the crate. Solution: While your dog was probably feeling a little insecure about being in a crate on his own with the door closed for the first time, you don't want to reward that behavior by letting him out. The goal is to reward the calm and quiet. So, instead of opening the door and letting him out while he's whining, wait until he stops whining/calms down, then quickly open the door and let him out. This will teach him that calm/quiet gets him what he wants and that there's no reason to be nervous (nothing bad happened to him for the time he was in the crate). Additionally, ensure that you are consulting with a trainer so that crate training is a smooth/fun process for both you and your puppy.
Food Aggression & Resource Guarding
There's a common misconception out there that sticking your hands in a puppy's food bowl while he's eating or taking a bone away that he's chewing on will prevent him from becoming food aggressive or a resource guarder. Unfortunately, this couldn't be further from the truth. These techniques can actually create food aggression and resource guarding issues. Fortunately, there are some very simple, effective techniques that can be employed to help prevent food aggression and resource guarding issues from developing. If you're in the Chattanooga, TN or Cleveland, TN area, give us a call, and we'd love to show you! If you're not in this area, we recommend consulting with a reputable trainer who can show you some proven, effective techniques to help combat these potential issues... Especially if your puppy/dog is showing food aggressive/resource guarding tendencies like hunkering down over his food bowl while he's eating, raising his hackles or freezing up if you approach while he's chewing on a bone, etc.
Dog Reactivity & Dog Aggression
While we'll be writing an entire blog post on the dangers of doggy daycares and dog parks, we'll just quickly touch on this one because it's important to get this message out as much as possible: Dog Parks & Doggy Daycares create dog reactivity/aggression and should be avoided. We'll be explaining why in our next blog post, so stay tuned for that!
Did you know that just simply not managing your dog in certain, triggering situations can allow/cause behavioral issues to develop? It sure can! Let us explain... For the purposes of this explanation, "management" means preventing your dog from engaging a subject through the use of a crate, dog pen, leash/tether, etc.
Let's say you have a new puppy that is showing some fear towards new people. Every time you have company over, your puppy barks/growls at them as they're coming through the door. After a bit of coddling/reassuring, he calms down. Another couple months go by, and your puppy is now older, bigger, and a little more confident. He learned at the last visit that his barking/growling didn't prevent the company from coming into the house like he'd hoped. This visit, he's going to have to try harder. Now when company comes through the door, he barks, growls, and charges at them but then retreats. He calms down after a while, and the visit goes smoothly after that. A few more months go by, and now he's even bigger and more confident. He remembers that the barking, growling, and charging at the company didn't stop them from coming into the house like he'd hoped. This visit, he's going to have to try even harder. Now when company comes through the door, he barks, growls, charges at them, and nips at their hands. The company quickly backs away from him to avoid getting bit. Finally! Some success! He just learned that he can manipulate people with his teeth! Perhaps he gets a scolding and some crate time, then calms down, and the rest of the visit goes smoothly. A couple more months go by, and he remembers that nipping at the company didn't stop them from coming into the house, but it did make them back off. He's going to have to kick things up a notch this visit. Now when company comes through the door, he barks, growls, charges at them, and bites them. He makes contact and puts multiple puncture wounds in their arms/legs. The company reacts, backs away, and quickly leaves to go get stitches. At last, he's figured out how to make company leave: Bite them. Next time, there will be no barking/growling/warning signs... The bite is all that's needed.
While this is a more extreme example, we deal with dogs every day that are in some phase of this process. Perhaps they're attempting the barking/growling but haven't gotten to the nipping yet. Or perhaps they're nipping occasionally but haven't gotten to the biting yet. While training is absolutely needed in this scenario, you can play a big role as well by simply not allowing this behavior to continue progressing. If you're unable to get help from a dog trainer right away but are noticing that your puppy/dog is showing some concerning signs when you have company over, use management until you can get help. Put your dog in a crate when company is coming in the door. Don't have a crate? Put your dog on a leash and prevent him from approaching the company (and prevent the company from approaching him). Put your dog in another room. The goal is to prevent your dog from discovering that he can manipulate people. Until you have the tools and training to tell him what he should be doing when company is coming over (holding a down/stay, not barking/growling, etc.), use management to prevent him from doing something he shouldn't.
To wrap things up, while training, genetics, and socialization do tend to have some major influence on our dog's behavior, don't sell yourself short! You have a huge influence over your dog as well. Simply being the "calm during the storm" when your dog is nervous can have lasting, positive effects on your dog's level of anxiety. A simple consult with a trainer on how to prevent food aggression can ensure you never deal with that issue. Keeping your dog away from strange dogs that you don't know can prevent him from having a negative experience that does long-term damage and triggers dog reactivity or aggression that can take months (and sometimes years) to reverse. Picking up on signs of fear that your dog is exhibiting around new people and immediately controlling/managing the situation can change the course of your dog's entire life and could potentially prevent him from having to be rehomed, euthanized, etc.
You are your dog's biggest advocate, and he is going to look to you during times of stress. If he has training, implement it. If he doesn't, be mindful of what you're reinforcing through your words and actions, and consider how he might be interpreting the interaction. If you sense that your dog is developing concerning behaviors like anxiety, reactivity, or aggression, the sooner that you intervene, the better! Find a balanced trainer in your area who can help you determine the cause of these behavioral issues... It could be training-related, genetic-related, socialization-related, or it could be owner-related. Whatever the cause, a dog trainer can help you find the solution.