I often get phone calls from frustrated people about their dog's behavior problems. I return their call expecting to have a conversation about anxiety or aggression, only to find that the dog has been jumping up on everyone or eating the garbage (which secretly makes me sigh in relief).
These phone calls have led me to the need for this post - What is a behavior problem? What is a problem behavior?
Let's start with the "easy" one - problem behaviors. These are behaviors that are unacceptable for a pet dog, but are actually a normal dog behavior. Some examples of this are scavenging (eating out of the trash & counter surfing), mouthing and nipping, jumping up, digging, and nuisance barking. Of course those are only a few of the naughty behaviors our pets can display that can easily push us to the breaking point.
The great thing about problem behaviors is that they are all fixable with proper management and training. For example: if you don't want your dog to eat something, don't leave it out! Teach leave it and drop it commands, so that you have control over what your dog puts in it's mouth. Any qualified positive trainer can help you deal with a problem behavior.
Then there are the much more complex behavior problems. These include generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, dog to dog (intraspecies) aggression, dog to human aggression, leash reactivity, obsessive compulsive disorder, and resource guarding. If a person displayed these behaviors they would need counseling, and sometimes behavior modifying medication. The same goes for our dogs!
Treatment begins with having a team of qualified professionals assembled to help you and your dog. The team should be comprised of you (the dog owner), your dog's veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist, and/or a dog training professional with education and experience in dog behavior.
Training is just a small part of the equation. Medical issues need to be ruled out and treated accordingly if present, behavior modifying medications are sometimes needed, and a well thought out behavior modification plan must be put in to place. Luckily, if caught in time, most behavior problems are treatable, or at the very least manageable.
The truth is, both problem behaviors and behavior problems can be traumatizing and frustrating for us as doggie guardians. It's essential that help is sought out sooner rather than later to ensure that you and your dog can live in harmony. Do your research when selecting a dog trainer/behaviorist, and don't hesitate to ask questions.
An ethical and effective dog trainer will be able to answer your questions with complete transparency. They will be able to discuss humane training, and how your dog will learn through positive reinforcement. If you're facing behavior problems, the right dog trainer/behaviorist will be knowledgeable about the specific problem you're dealing with, and about the strategies that can be used to help your dog. They won't have a problem referring you to someone better qualified to handle your unique situation if they are unable to.
If you're facing a problem behavior, or a behavior problem, the Pet Professional Guild is a fantastic resource to find a qualified professional in your area.
Emily Lewis is a professional dog trainer and veterinary technician. She lives in Vermont with her three rescue dogs, tuxedo cat, corn snake, crested geckos and Russian tortoise.