Addressing Behavior Problems Early

Behavior “quirks.” All dogs have them. Mine most certainly do. What are your dogs’ quirks? We live with these delightful creatures and their quirks every day, and usually find them endearing.

But some behaviors become a bit more problematic than a “quirk.” Defining a behavior problem is a judgment call. You can define it by the behavior:

  • House soilingBarking dog
  • Over-the-top/exuberant/aggressive response to visitors to the home
  • Reactivity to other dogs/people/etc.
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Resource or food bowl guarding
  • Separation anxiety or anxiety in general
  • Destructiveness
  • Excessive barking
  • A sudden behavior change (for the worse)

Certainly, we can all relate to this list, as we might all see some of these behaviors to one degree or another in even the “best behaved” dogs.

We know that addressing behavior problems early leads to effective behavior modification (for the better) and usually over a shorter period of time than resolving behaviors that have been practiced over a longer period of time. The trick is to acknowledge that a behavior quirk is emerging as a behavior problem.

To that end, I suggest you define a behavior problem in terms of the impact the behavior is having on your relationship with your dog. Consider these three questions:

  • Do you feel you can’t trust your dog as much as you used to? You won’t leave him alone. You put him in his crate/outside/in another room when people come over. You take your walks very early in the morning or late at night to avoid others. You get an uneasy feeling when you see your dog look or behave a certain way. You keep everything, including dog toys up off the floor.
  • Are you becoming concerned that your dog might do harm to himself, you, or someone else? You don’t invite people over or you lock your dog away while you entertain. You keep your dog separated from your other pets. You take early/late walks with your dog. You have muzzled your dog at times.
  • Do you feel like you are constantly making accommodations in your life for the dog’s behavior? You have changed your sleeping habits. You skipped a vacation this year. You meet people away from home. You always have someone at home or take your dog with you. You have changed the construction of rooms in your home.

Be honest with yourself to acknowledge this impact before you start to have thoughts that you can’t live with the behavior and you are close to your limit. Any behavior problem takes time to resolve. There are no “quick fixes.” And if it is a behavior that the dog has been engaging in for a while, it may take longer.

I understand why people often wait months–even years–before addressing a problem behavior, so I’m not criticizing those who have turned themselves inside out because of a behavior problem with their beloved dog. It usually boils down to denial and worry.

We deny that the behavior is a real problem, because we don’t see the behavior all the time and think it affects our lives less than it actually does.

We worry that we may be forced to make a decision we don’t want to. We worry that it will cost a lot of money to resolve. And we worry that others will judge us or we’ll be embarrassed.

I certainly can’t reassure away those concerns. What I can tell you is that there are usually a number of options open to you, and the range of options is broader the sooner you confront the need to resolve the behavior problem.

Training and Behavior Consultants

A professional force-free dog trainer or behavior consultant, with experience in the behavior problem your dog is exhibiting, can offer you a number of different options. Personally, I address problem resolution from the perspective of three primary strategies: Management, Training, and Behavior Modification. Each strategy can have multiple tasks, depending on the type and severity of the behavior problem. That means, of course, it isn’t a “make-or-break” plan, but one with options, progressions and adaptability.

Another great benefit an experienced professional can offer is objectivity. You get too close to your dog’s behavior issues and find it hard to see nuances, as well as the big picture. Professionals can help you put the behavior in perspective and find some creative and effective remediation strategies that you would never have been able to think of on your own.

Sure, friends and the Internet are full of lots of ideas and opinions. But none of them really know your dog and your situation. Don’t get trapped in information overload. Seek specific, customized help one-on-one from an experienced trainer or behavior consultant.

Medical Intervention

If your dog’s behavior change is seemingly “out of the blue” or coincides with a recently illness/injury, it is wise to rule out a physiological basis for the behavior. Talk to your veterinarian about possible changes in your dog’s musculoskeletal health or blood chemistry. Pain, infections, and/or endocrine imbalances have been known to be the culprit behind problem behaviors.

Veterinary Behaviorists

For some problem behaviors, the counsel of a Veterinary Behaviorist is invaluable. A Vet Behaviorist is a board-certified veterinarian who has specialized his or her practice exclusively in the area of behavior, and is pursuing (or has achieved) board certification in Behavior. These vets can address behavior modification, as well as pharmaceuticals and homeopathic remedies, and will work with your trainer and family veterinarian throughout the process for a holistic approach to remediating the problem behavior and improving your dog’s overall quality of life.

So you see, there are many options to address emerging behavior problems. It is my hope that this helps devoted dog owners take charge of behavior problems early for best resolution. You will get the best results if you:

  • Don’t let denial and worry stand in your way of resolving problem behaviors.
  • Recognize the early signs of a behavior quirk becoming a behavior problem in terms of how it makes you feel.
  • Seek professional help early, and consistently implement the plan.

In return, you will be rewarded with peace of mind and a better relationship with your dog.

Because that’s what having a dog in your life is really about. Isn’t it?

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