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Dog Behavior - A Compassionate, Sensible, Effective Approach

When should you start obedience training with your dog?

Yesterday. Obedience training is something I'm really passionate about! You can't start too early with dog socialization and behavior. It's a lifelong process, but, especially in terms of development periods in dogs, the earlier we can start having a positive influence on them, the better off they will be long term.

How should common unwanted behaviors be addressed?

That's a call or a discussion that we have at Freeport Vet almost every single day. "My dog's jumping on me, my dog's digging in the backyard. How do I make them stop?" The crucial thing to remember is that when you have what we consider an unwanted behavior, dogs only do behaviors that work for them. That means that they only do things that satisfy some sort of want or need for them. So let's consider jumping behavior.

When I think about any behavior problem, I try and think about what factor leads to that problem, what's the behavior itself, and then what is the dog getting out of it? For example, jumping typically happens when they're greeting you or they're excited. We have that preemptive "Yay, Mom's home" sort of thing that we need to think about when we're considering a management plan. The behavior itself is jumping, sometimes knocking people over, as in the case of my Labrador. Sometimes it's just an obnoxious behavior. And what does the dog get out of it? Social interaction. They're excited, they're interacting with you, and even when you're saying, "No, get down" or pushing them, that's encouraging that behavior. It's some sort of interaction.

When we're dealing with these behavior issues, we need to think about our management plans. How do we preempt the situation, and how do we prevent them from doing the behavior? In the case of jumping, there are many different options. One thing to do is to remember that coming home can't be exciting. If we don't get excited to see our dog, they will be less likely to start that behavior. Come in calmly, ignoring the dog until they're willing to offer a sit or other calm behavior. Also, another thing that we often forget is to reinforce the behavior that you want. So if your dog tries to jump, you ignore them. But when they sit down, it's party time. Not that we have to jump up and down and squeal, because that will probably incite jumping, but we do need to give some praise or even some food. I always try and have a few treats in my pocket at all times for these sorts of situations, and so we have to reinforce the behavior that we want.

That's the key for unwanted behaviors—find the behavior or reaction you want in any situation and find a way to reinforce that behavior. Teach your dog this is what's going to work for you. Jumping will not work for you, but if you sit and look at me, that's what I want. There is certainly going to be a slightly different management plan for every dog. Some dogs are not going to sit on their own early on, but we're here to help, so give us a call or check in with us if you have some concerns about particular behaviors.

Can behavior issues ever indicate that they are sick?

Absolutely. That's an essential thing to remember, especially if a behavior problem comes up relatively suddenly with no apparent cause. We want to check the dog out and make sure there's nothing else going on. Common things that we would see causing significant behavior changes would be neurologic problems and sometimes pain. That can be arthritic pain, or it can be gas pain. As dogs get older, cognitive decline can play a role in behavior changes as well, and all of those things are things that we want to rule out before we start to come up with a behavior management plan because those could play a factor.

What should I look for in a trainer?

This is a good one, as it's a slightly controversial issue in some people's eyes. For me, the only answer to this question is you need to find a positive reinforcement-based trainer. There is no room in any situation for punishment-based training. It can be a little bit hard to tell sometimes when you're evaluating a trainer on their website what their training methods are. One thing to watch out for would be using what's called an e-collar, which is essentially a shock or vibration collar. I would also avoid anyone that's calling themselves a balanced trainer. In most of these situations, they are using aversive training (meaning uncomfortable or scary negative reinforcement of behaviors), and there's a lot of data out there that says that not only do these techniques not work longterm, but they can actually worsen behavior issues. Instead, look for positive reinforcement, and if you're not sure, contact them. Ask for references, ask what their methods are, and always check in with us if you're not sure.

When might my dog need medication for behavioral problems?

That's an ongoing discussion. A lot of it has to come down to figuring out how much this behavior affects either your or your dog's quality of life. In some situations, behaviors are particular to triggers. So, for some dogs, they're totally fine in their house and very happy, but when they go out and see another dog, it becomes an issue. Or some dogs are totally fine for their entire life except when they come to the vet. As you know from some of our other videos, we're big fans of fear-free veterinary medicine, and that's something we deal with a lot. In those situations in which a dog is stressed, we sometimes use short-term medications. Or when we have situational issues, situational medications can be helpful, but for those dogs that are kind of those anxious, scared dogs on a daily basis, that's an awful way to live. Nobody wants to be scared and anxious all the time. Those are situations in which trying some anti-anxiety medications for long-term use can make a quality of life difference. There are pros and cons to the different medications and when we would use them, so that's something we would always chat about during a behavior consult to figure out what's the best choice for your pet.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (207) 865-3673, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Dog Behavior FAQs

When should I seek professional help for my dog?

As soon as possible. It's never too early to check in with either a trainer you trust or with your veterinarian about a concern you have for your pet. Behavioral problems are probably the most common reason dogs are relinquished to shelters or rescues, so intervening when that problem starts can make a world of difference for maintaining a good relationship between you and your dog.

How can I determine a medical issue versus a behavioral problem?

That's where we come in. So you're going to be able to notice if your dog is limping and therefore not acting themselves. But there can also be subtle changes that we may be able to find on blood work or a physical exam that may indicate an underlying medical issue as a cause of a behavioral problem. Some things that we think about, any kind of pain - whether it's joint pain, stomach pain, or any sort of discomfort - can cause behavioral changes. And that can range from anything from lethargy to anxiety to aggression. So it can be a range of things that can happen. Certainly, neurologic conditions could cause behavior changes. And there is some thought that abnormal thyroid levels may play a role in behavioral issues. I think the jury's still out on that in a lot of ways. But it's always worth evaluating.

What does constitute a behavior problem?

Anything that's not working for you in a lot of ways. So you and your dog have a relationship. You live in the same house. You guys need to be able to get along. And that means keeping you and your dog healthy and happy. When we're thinking about things, if you're finding something that your dog is doing is annoying, destructive, and potentially affecting your health, we need to consider that. And that can be something as simple as chewing on things they're not supposed to. It can be jumping behavior. It can be dog aggression when they're out and about. But really anything that you find that affects your relationship or affects your daily life. If it's a problem, then let's talk about it and find a solution.

Knowing it's a behavioral problem versus a medical problem, now what? What do I do?

So once we know your dog's healthy physically, but we do have a behavioral problem, oftentimes, we're going to end up working with a certified professional dog trainer. We have a board-certified veterinary behaviorist in Maine now, which is a fantastic resource. In some situations, we can come up with a plan just between you and me. But in other situations, we're going to call in the troops. Have you worked with one of the trainers that we've vetted and felt comfortable with their methods? Or we can even send you over to Dr. Calder, our veterinary behaviorist, to formulate a plan. That could be something as simple as some exercises or homework to do. But it can sometimes also mean adding on some medications or supplements to improve your dog's mental health and make the behavior modification more successful.

What is behavior modification?

Behavior modification is creating a plan to change behaviors. We do a fair amount of that here at the clinic regarding our comfort conditioning or cooperative care. In those situations, we're trying to modify your dog’s association with specific procedures. It could be a physical exam. It could be getting their blood drawn. It could be getting an injection. It's just starting to change that association or change that behavioral response to a particular situation or action.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (207) 865-3673, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Dog Behavior FAQs 2

What is the importance of training and socialization?

I think that getting a good training relationship with your dog as early as possible is probably one of the most valuable things that you can ever do for your pet. If you think about it, we are two species trying to live in the same environment with very different social structures and communication methods. Creating a form of communication with them and setting expectations as early as possible can make a massive difference in the quality of life and the dog’s health over their lifetime. Socialization plays a huge role in this. We don't always have control over this process in the prime socialization time if your dog is a rescue or you're adopting them as an adult. Still, when we do have those opportunities, it can make a world of difference.

What exactly is socialization?

Most people think that socialization is - hey, let's have my new puppy meet as many dogs and people as possible as soon as possible. And I would say no way to that because, although we certainly want your dog to be exposed to other dogs and people in a controlled environment, that's less than half of what socialization's really about. Socialization is starting to understand the world as a safe place. So we want your dog to be exposed to different types of environments—maybe the water, the woods, different types of surfaces, not just grass, concrete, rocks. These things might seem silly, but the more we can expose dogs or puppies to positive experiences early on, the better things will go for that dog. The critical socialization period in dogs is three weeks to three months.

There's a little bit of wiggle room on either end, depending on the dog, the breed, and genetics, but that critical socialization period starts around three to four weeks. These early life experiences make a profound difference in the rest of their life. So if you are looking into a breeder situation and are evaluating those breeders in terms of what they're doing for early socialization, this can make a big difference.

Other things to think about if you get your puppy at eight, nine, or 10 weeks or so, we have a pretty small amount of time to pack in those positive experiences. In addition to the environmental stuff, think about exposing them to people in different scenarios—a person in a wheelchair, a person wearing a hat, different clothing types, different types of people, people on crutches, and other types of things that may move around them in the environment such bikes, skateboards, and any number of things. So, yes, I want your dog or your puppy to meet other people and other dogs, but that's a tiny part of socialization. We have a great resource on our website sending you to Sophia Yin's website on socialization in the environment and even a great checklist, so that's an excellent place to start.

When should I punish a behavior?

Never. I know that sounds silly because puppies certainly can be what we consider naughty—getting into things, chewing things, eating things they're not supposed to, but what we need to teach them is what do you want them to do? What sort of behaviors do you want in your environment? Because if you just tell your puppy, "I don't want you to chew on the couch," that doesn't tell them anything. They don't understand that. So we need to say, "Hey, chew on this. This is a good idea." Or, "I don't want you to pee in my living room; let’s pee outside and make a party out of it when you do it right." We want to reinforce those behaviors that we like and that we need to keep your harmonious household or keep your pet safe. Punishment doesn't work. Punishment tells them in the moment that something terrifying happens when they pee on the carpet, but it doesn't teach them what you want them to do. And all it does is damage your relationship with your puppy.

What is enrichment, and why is it important?

Enrichment is one of the most important things you can do for your pet. It's easy to think my dog's happy sleeping on the couch while I'm gone because that's what they do. And in some ways, that's true, but it's imperative to think about the fact that our dogs are intelligent creatures that need stimulation. That doesn't mean that we need to be entertaining them 24 hours a day, but it does mean that we need to consider that in our daily lives. And it doesn't have to be labor-intensive, as there are so many different YouTube videos and resources on the website on DIY enrichment.

It could be as simple as taking a cardboard box and feeding half of your dog's dinner in there mixed with some paper shreds so that they have to dig around and tear a little bit to get their dinner for the night. Keep in mind that anything like that should always be supervised, so they're not consuming things they're not supposed to, but enrichment means working your dog's brain and making their life more than just the box that is your house. Get out and let them sniff on walks. Also, walks don't have to be a 20-minute speed-walking marathon. Really let them sniff, let them see the world, and let them interact with the world—obviously on a leash and in a controlled way.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (207) 865-3673, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

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