Behaviour problems in dogs are very common, and there are lots of different types. Many of these can be treated with correct diagnosis and retraining techniques. Medication is also available but often unnecessary.
The most common behaviour problems include:
- Aggression and biting
- Destructive behaviour
- Fear of noises
Digging does not have to be abnormal behaviour. Dogs may dig for many reasons.
Keeping Cool and Comfortable
Dogs often dig and circle to make a comfortable bed. If a dog is especially hot or cold, she may dig to find a warmer or cooler place to rest. Holes are often strategically located in cool or warm areas, such as in the shade, underneath bushes or outdoor furniture. Older dogs may start digging later in life if they become unable to regulate their own body temperature as well as they used to.
Dogs who dig for fun usually adopt a playful posture and alternate between digging and running around. Sandy surfaces often trigger bouts of digging. If your dog digs for entertainment, you’ll probably see holes located randomly around the area.
Burying Valued Items
Dogs bury food, chew bones, toys and prey. This behaviour was once key to the survival of dogs’ wild ancestors because it allowed them to leave food safely concealed and then return to eat it later. It’s not surprising that our domesticated dogs still feel the urge to dig. Often the dog will repeatedly bury an item, dig it up and bury it again in a new spot.
Hunting Ground-Dwelling Animals
Most dogs have the desire and ability to hunt small prey so if a dog finds a hole with an animal inside, she may dig relentlessly in an attempt to get to the animal.
Some reasons for abnormal digging:
Dogs suffering from separation anxiety may dig to get to a family member or to escape from being left alone.
Some dogs dig to escape from confinement or if not desexed.
If Your Dog Digs to Keep Cool or Get Comfortable
- If your dog digs in an attempt to cool off, provide an insulated dog house, a shallow wading pool, shade, a fan (air blowing over ice feels just like air conditioning!) and/or a bed that allows air to circulate underneath. Hot dogs like to lie flat on hard, cool surfaces or upside down on soft surfaces, so give your dog access to those. If possible, keep your dog indoors, in an air-conditioned area-at least during the hottest time of day.
- If your dog digs in an attempt to keep warm, provide an insulated dog house, give her extra blankets or a differently shaped bed that she can burrow into, move her bed to a cozier, less drafty location, or give her access to an area where she can lie in the warm sun. If possible, keep your dog indoors when it’s particularly cold outside.
- If your dog digs in an attempt to create a more comfortable resting place, provide a bed. It may help to offer a few different kinds of beds so your dog can let you know which one she prefers. Many dogs like circular beds with a raised edge that can be used as a pillow. Dogs also seem to like beds that are snug, so that they can burrow down into them and get cozy. (Some dogs like beds that seem almost too small for them!)
If Your Dog Digs to Entertain Herself
Many dogs dig for the fun of it. This type of digging is the hardest to treat because the action of digging is rewarding in and of itself. To achieve success, rather than attempting to eliminate the behaviour, try to redirect your dog’s digging to an acceptable place.
- Encourage your dog to dig in an area you have allocated specifically for this activity. Build a digging pit that is especially enticing – eg a sandpit
- Try to discourage digging in inappropriate locations by installing garden fencing around areas where you don’t want your dog to dig.
If Your Dog Digs to Bury Her Stuff
The best way to eliminate this type of digging is to refrain from giving your dog food or chew bones that she will not finish immediately. Alternatively, you can build your dog a digging pit and encourage her to bury items there, instead of in your favourite flower bed. This is a particularly great solution if your dog seems to prefer digging in the sandy dirt.
If your dog starts chewing something but doesn’t consume it completely, remove it before she has the opportunity to bury it
What NOT to Do
Do not take your dog to an area where she previously dug a hole and scold, spank or punish her after-the-fact. Your dog can’t connect punishment with something she did hours or even minutes ago. Delayed punishment won’t succeed in stopping your dog from digging later, but you could frighten and upset her unnecessarily.
Chewing can be a completely normal behaviour.
Adolescent chewing (or exploratory chewing as it is also known) commonly occurs in dogs between puppyhood and adulthood at 7-12 months of age.
This chewing stage can last for up to 6 months. Adolescent chewing is different from puppy teething since it happens after all the needle-like puppy teeth have fallen out. Adolescent dogs often have an uncontrollable urge to chew. This could be because of discomfort in their gums as their adult teeth are settling into the jawbone. This kind of chewing also occurs as the young dog is attempting to find out about his environment and discover new things.
Other reasons for chewing
- An unbalanced diet: Puppies and dogs of all ages should be fed a balanced diet, according to their age, weight, health status and the amount of exercise they receive
- Attention-seeking – if your dog learns that by picking something up in his mouth (such as a TV remote control) you get up and chase him round the room, he will quickly learn that this is a great way to get your attention.
- Distress at being left alone – some dogs cannot cope with being separated from their owners and can be destructive when left.
- Puppy teething – occurs from 3-7 months of age. During this time, puppies have an uncontrollable urge to chew things to relieve some of the discomfort in their gums. Chewing also facilitates the removal of puppy teeth, and the eruption of the adult set.
- Boredom – Dogs that are left alone for long periods or receive inadequate mental and physical stimulation are likely to become bored. Working breeds that have naturally high activity levels become easily bored in the wrong home, which can lead to destructive behaviour when left.
Managing adolescent chewing
- Supply your dog with lots of items that are safe and tough enough to survive being chewed – this means that they should not splinter or break into small or harmful pieces that can be swallowed.
- Make sure your dog does not have access to places where there are valuable or dangerous items whenever you are not there to supervise.
- Give your dog regular exercise – especially away from home at least once a day (i.e. don’t just exercise your dog in your garden).
- Visit different environments when you walk your dog whenever you can (e.g. pavements, fields, woods, parks, and beaches.)
- Teach your dog what kinds of things are acceptable and unacceptable to chew.
- Play with your dog. Short, frequent play sessions are the best. Try to play at least 3 times a day for 5 minutes.
Toys are different from chews
Toys and chews should not be confused.
Toys are designed to be thrown, chased, squeaked and tugged during play. Most are not designed to be chewed. Soft toys that are easily destroyed should always be picked up by the owner at the end of the game and put out of the dog’s reach.
Unlike toys, chews are designed for nibbling and gnawing and are essential if you want your dog to chew acceptable items instead of your furniture. Chews should be given when your dog is settling down for a quiet time, either in your presence or on his own.
Teach right from wrong
Always reward your dog for chewing the right things.
Provide your dog with one or two chews that he has not seen for a while. Leave them out on the floor whenever he is in the room. When you see him settle down to chew one, praise him gently. This will allow him to chew without interruption.
Correct your dog when he chews the wrong things. If you notice him just about to chew something that you don’t want him to, redirect his attention to something you want him to chew and then praise.
If you are too late, then you should distract him (e.g. by calling his name excitedly or picking up his lead.) Praise him when he comes to you and give him a titbit, then watch him carefully because he will probably go back to his new hobby, giving you a chance to correct him before he starts chewing.
Exploratory chewing can sometimes be discouraged by spraying the object (e.g. chair leg) with a taste. However, this method only discourages some dogs and not others. In addition, the object needs to have been sprayed recently (e.g. in the last minute) to taste unpleasant to the dog. This method does not cure adolescent chewing; you will still need to follow the above steps.
Beyond adolescence & into adulthood
When your dog becomes a fully-grown adult, his desire to chew will be reduced, but it will not go completely. It is important to continue to give an adult dog chews and bones throughout his life to exercise his jaws and to keep his teeth clean.
Always remember… The adolescent chewing stage will pass more quickly if you understand your young dog’s needs. If you provide your dog with a range of chews, plenty of play-sessions and the opportunity to explore different environments, you will be well on the way to having a contented dog that only chews things he is supposed to.
Barking is a normal behaviour for dogs and an important means of communication. However, when dogs bark excessively they become a nuisance to their owners and the neighbourhood. Before you can successfully manage a barking problem you will need to determine the cause of the barking. Your neighbours may be able to tell you how often your dog barks in your absence.
Dogs bark for a variety of reasons and it is important to work out why your dog is barking excessively. Once the underlying cause and ‘triggers’ for the barking are identified, training techniques can be used to treat the excessive barking.
Some of these reasons include:
Dogs that are left alone all day with nothing to do often resort to barking out of boredom. Boredom barkers will bark continuously and may also have other destructive behaviours such as chewing and digging. To tackle boredom barking you should start by ensuring that your dog is receiving enough exercise. If you take your dog for a good walk in the morning he will be more likely to rest until you come home.
You should also make sure that your house and garden are sufficiently enriched with fun toys and puzzles to keep him entertained when you are not home. Try putting some of your dog’s daily food allowance into a Kong toy or treat ball so he has to work to retrieve his snacks. Keep his toys in a toy box and alternate the toys he has access to each day. Hide his toys and some treats around the garden to encourage him to forage or if he likes to dig provide a sand pit to divert his instincts away from your garden. If your dog has any play mates in the neighbourhood you might alleviate boredom by inviting them over for the day. You may also consider organising a ‘dog walker’ to walk your dog in the middle of the day while you are at work.
Dogs are social animals and it is normal for them to become anxious when they are left alone for the first time. Take care to teach your dog how to cope with being left alone at a young age. Begin by sending your dog outside for short periods of time while you are still at home. Make sure he has a toy to play with or raw bone to chew on while he is outside so the experience is a positive one.
Gradually extend the length of time you are leaving your dog alone.
When you do leave the house make sure that he has somewhere safe to
retreat to such as a kennel. Make sure that he receives plenty of
exercise and that he has a supply of toys and treats to keep him
entertained while you are away.
Do not fuss over your dog when you come home – make sure both your departure and return are quiet and unexcitable. Most dogs will adjust to periods of time alone, however some become severely stressed and may begin to bark incessantly and even self mutilate/injure themselves.
Dogs can also bark due to fear. They may be afraid of people coming near their territory or fearful of noises particularly at night which may stimulate anxieties. Dogs can also be fearful of fireworks, thunderstorms and lawnmowers etc
It is natural for your dog to want to warn you about potential intruders. Your dog may not be able to distinguish between welcome visitors, people strolling past your home and intruders. Try and use predictable passers-by such as the postman to change your dog’s association from territory protection to a positive experience. Try and pre-empt the postman’s arrival and offer your dog a delicious treat or favourite toy. Only reward your dog when he/she is calm and not barking. With time your dog may begin to associate a person passing the house with something good rather than someone to protect you from.
If your dog barks at your neighbours when they are in their garden it is probably also because he is protecting your territory. Again, make sure you have some tasty treats at hand so that your dog associates your neighbours with the food (only give the treat when your dog is calm and not barking). You may also consider asking your friendly neighbours to treat your dog and supply them with their own stockpile – this is preferable to having them yell at your dog in frustration – yelling at a barking dog will only tend to reinforce the barking and protective behaviour.
Barking is also reinforced when owners yell or scold their own barking dog – this is called negative reinforcement and should be avoided. Successfully treating excessive barking relies on positive reinforcement – that is, reward good behaviour and avoid reinforcing ‘unwanted’ behaviour.
If your dog is barking at the dog next door arrange a meeting time and supervise play between the two (only if friendly) or organise the two of you to go for a walk together. Fun play time should quell fear-related territorial behaviour and alleviate boredom. Do not ignore or scold territorial barking as your dog will become confused and anxious if his attempts to protect you are negatively received. You might also find that one day your dog alerts you to a real threat!
Dogs can bark when trying to call out to their human owner or when bored through being left alone for long periods of time or having nothing to do while its’ humans are at work/away from the home.
You can modify attention seeking barking by ignoring unwanted behaviour and rewarding good behaviour. When your dog barks for attention he must be completely ignored – avoid eye contact, even leave the room. Praise and pat your dog when he is calm and quiet so he realises that this is the behaviour required to secure your attention. You can also give your dog a food treat when he/she is calm and not barking. This rewards good behaviour and does not reinforce ‘unwanted’ behaviour.
Dogs can bark as a means of normal communication. They may bark when calling out to other dogs or respond to other barking dogs or when communicating with its’ human owners.
Any noise, no matter how slight can stimulate a barking response for e.g. rustling leaves, a banging window or a knock at the front door/doorbell. The basis of each of these barking problems is quite different. Likewise, approaches to treating each of them need to be different. Take the time to characterise your dog’s barking habits – does he bark at people passing by? Ask your neighbours whether he barks while you are away from home – does he bark all day or only some of the time?
Anti-barking collars constitute a form of punishment and are an unreliable remedy – they do not address the cause of the problem and are easy to abuse. Your dog will be punished for every bark, some of which will be appropriate, and he will not learn.
Animal behaviour is a fascinating and sometimes complex subject. We hope the foregoing has been of help. If you have any questions regarding your pet’s behaviour or you have any concerns, please contact one of our clinics to make an appointment to speak with one of our veterinarians.
By Macarthur Veterinary Group
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