An introduction to dog behaviour therapy


Agressive dogPeople seek dog behaviour therapy because their dog is doing something that they shouldn’t be, which can make dog ownership hard work and upsetting. Having a dog shouldn’t be like that. Dog behaviour therapy can improve the quality of life for both the owner and the dog.

The first thing to do is figure out what is wrong with the dog in order to understand what they need. Each dog is different, so the factors which are causing them to display behaviour problems are unique and must be dealt with on a case by case basis. However, there are some common problems with common causes including aggression, toileting, being destructive and hyperactivity, which we explore below. Other reasons not covered here include phobias, barking and being noisy, travelling problems and chasing.

Dogs and aggression

Dogs fightingOne of the main reasons people seek dog behaviour therapy is aggression. Around three out of four dog behaviour therapy sessions will be for aggression. This could be either aggression towards other dogs or towards people, and can occur in a whole range of situations.

Sometimes, dogs can have aggression problems because they are in pain, and so might require a visit to the vet, and some can be grumpy and moody. But often, dogs are aggressive because they are frightened. Being really afraid is a horrible feeling, especially if you cannot escape what is frightening you.

If a dog uses aggression once they are likely to use it again because it works. Think about it – if a dog is frightened of someone approaching and becomes aggressive, either the person they are frightened of will back off or walk away, or the owner will take the dog away as quickly as possible. Either way, it has meant instant success for the dog as the scary threat has been removed, so they will remember it as a good method of getting rid of something scary and in any future situation where they might potentially feel threatened will become highly aggressive.

Following this success, the dog feels rewarded by being aggressive, and it can subsequently and quickly become an ingrained habit. If the aggression creates a reaction then this increases the passion and the buzz, raising the episode to a new level and creating more aggression. The way to deal with this is to take the success out of the aggression, which needs to be done at the precise moment the dog starts to feel good about their aggressive behaviour so that they don’t get any pleasurable feelings of success from it. Once the reward is taken out of aggression, you need to slowly and carefully manage rebuilding your dog’s confidence around other dogs and people. But how do you take the success out of the aggression in the first place?

Signalling failure

Naughty dogIf your dog is behaving badly you need to give them a clear-cut signal to show them they have failed to behave well. This does not mean punishing them physically. Your dog will learn better when they don’t feel threatened and have “options” regarding what to do next, allowing them to control their feelings and make an educated choice.

A firm “no” is a clear signal of bad behaviour, and your dog should associate it with not receiving a reward because they have behaved badly. It should be used every time they do something wrong. However, something stronger than this may often be needed for aggression issues.

Some careful training of a strong signal of failure is what is required and part of what behaviour therapy is about is finding the particular one that works for the individual in front of you.

Indoor toilet trouble

Indoor toilet trouble dogAnother key reason why people look for dog behaviour therapy is because of indoor toilet trouble.

The first question that needs to be asked is it a problem of awareness? Does your dog know where he or she is meant to go to the toilet, and if so do they know how to attract your attention to get access to that place?

Or is the issue an emotional one instead? Is your dog going to the toilet indoors because he or she is anxious, frightened or stressed? When an animal is feeling very emotional about something, one of the things they may do is go to the toilet.

If it is an emotional reason, you need to try to understand what could be causing this. If a dog has been scared whilst going to the toilet, it can make them wary or frightened of that area. A clap of thunder or a bang from a back-firing car whilst going to the toilet in the garden may make the dog feel that this a dangerous place to go to the loo.

Dogs are very emotional creatures. They will generally get confused and upset when told off or smacked by their owners as they often don’t understand why they’re being punished, especially if the event took place minutes or hours before. An example would be if they have an accident as a result of simply being left alone too long, feeling unwell or being unsettled by something like a noise outside, but then get punished when the owner returns home hours later and discovers the mess. The next time the owners go out, the dog feels anxious because it associates getting punished with its owners coming home, so goes to the toilet indoors, and a vicious circle begins.

The next question is, has your dog previously been house trained and has only now started going to the toilet indoors, or have they never properly grasped where they are meant to go to the toilet. If the former, then this may be an indication of illness and you should take your dog to the vet for a full check-up. If the latter, then you will need to toilet train them from scratch.

A dog’s body language will generally tell you when they need to go to the toilet. Circling, sniffing and looking agitated are all tell tale signs. There are also other ways to predict when your dog might need the toilet – after a sleep, a meal or a play are common times, so just pop them into the garden to help with the training process, and go with them and praise them for a good performance.

A dog can get distracted when out in the garden and forget to go to the toilet, or might go during the night because they know their owner is in the house but not with them and so feel excluded or upset. They might even be scared of the dark, or get upset when left on their own. Something as simple as a change of diet could upset their tummy. Again, every dog is different.

Being destructive

Destructive dogThere are a variety of reasons why pets can be destructive. Young dogs can eat or chew household items simply because they are there, a bit like a baby exploring new objects with its mouth.

However, boredom is the most common reason for dogs chewing. A bored dog might relieve its boredom by shaking or ripping up a magazine or cushion. In the absence of anything else, a nice pair of shoes can make for a pleasant diversion. Dogs need toys, antlers, Kongs and other stimulating objects to give them something to do. But they can still get bored with what’s familiar, and will be more entertained if you present them with a toy they haven’t seen for a while. Keep up their interest by rotating toys and by joining in occasionally with a game like fetch or tug. If your dog sleeps downstairs at night, they may not be getting enough of your attention, so make up for this by supplying interest in other areas.

An anxious dog will gnaw on wooden door frames, furniture, or anything it can get its jaws around. Chomping and grinding on something can help to alleviate anxiety, in the same way that humans chew gum. A dog scratching at the back door might indicate that they need the toilet, but a dog scratching at the locked kitchen door might be a sign of anxiety. Digging in the house on carpet, lino, settee or mattress can also indicate that your dog is in a panic. If your dog is afraid of staying where he or she is then trying to dig their way out is a distraction and a relief, and if it makes them feel better they will do it again. It can be hard to figure out what they are afraid of – for example, a dog that was shut in the kitchen whilst fireworks were being let off outside might now associate the kitchen with that noise and be afraid of being in there, but if the owner was out at the time, they might not know that.

Another reason a dog can be destructive is because it sees things going on that it wants to join in with but can’t – for example seeing another dog walking down the road outside. A closed door or window with an animal or person on the other side can wind Fido up into a frustrated frenzy and lead him to take his frustration out on anything nearby. To combat this, give them other things to focus on by keeping them well exercised and mentally occupied. If they get cross in a particular place, such as the front window in the living room, block their route to it with furniture or just keep the door closed.

Hyperactivity

Hyperactive dogSome dogs appear unable to relax and spend their time constantly on the move, pacing up and down or getting into mischief – stealing from kitchen surfaces, raiding the bin, chewing furniture or household items, launching themselves repeatedly at their owners, whining constantly and barking at nothing. They will do these things incessantly, with little let-up. When they finally drop down exhausted after doing twenty miles round the living room and garden, they might just have a short nap before starting all over again.

Some dogs may appear to be hyperactive when they are in fact just very exuberant. There are dog breeds that naturally have a lot of energy and stamina. The difference between a hyperactive dog and one with natural exuberance is the ability to switch off and relax, or focus on one specific task for a period of time. The hyperactive dog finds this difficult.

A dog can become hyperactive at any age, although it is normal for young animals to be lively. A few are born like it, but most hyperactive behaviour is created. Common causes are:

  • Depression from long-term illness or recuperation from accidents
  • Living in an emotionally charged house (e.g. where a couple are going through a divorce) – dogs hate arguments and atmospheres
  • Sudden and profound changes to the dogs living conditions e.g. moving house or a new baby
  • Upset to daily routine e.g. owners dying, people moving in or out, owners going back to work after time off, or change of diet. Dogs require stability.
  • Diet – the food our dog eats can make it hyperactive
  • Boredom or lack of exercise – dogs need games and mental stimulation

Evaluate your dogs’ lifestyle critically. Does it have adequate exercise? Is it mentally challenged? Does it understand the house rules? Are you being clear and consistent in your communication? These are the areas that may need addressing to make the dog relaxed and happy again. The dog may seem very happy, in which case introducing more walks, feeding in a variety of ways, and being consistent in our dealings with it, should make it even happier. If the dog is truly hyperactive, making these changes to its daily life should reap positive results in a few short weeks.

The best way to tackle these problems is to seek professional dog behaviour therapy. This means on-going support as well as practical help and rehabilitation for your dog. The behaviour consultations should aim to exain your dog’s behaviour in a manner you can readily understand and give you tailored practical and usable solutions to modify behaviour. For more information about booking dog behaviour therapy sessions, please visit https://www.witsend4pets.co.uk/behaviour.php

About the author

Dr Shahad Mohammed
Veterinary Physiotherapist
National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists