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MANAGING UNACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOUR IN DOGS – AND REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

We are often called asking for help with reactionary or fearful dogs. Sometimes this is the result of a ‘one off’ incident, where something startles the dog – usually when it is a puppy – and therefore as a general rule, fairly easy to deal with (if you are aware, and quick off the mark) effectively and forever, by desensitisation and patience alone. However, if a dog has become reactive or fearful of a situation, object, person, or dog, and the issue has grown and developed, the solution can be trickier.

We may fear certain things (as an example, mice or spiders) but we know that our fear is irrational, and therefore can work on ‘curing’ ourselves, but a dog does not have this rational mind. To him, something he does not understand and which causes him to feel uncomfortable is to be feared, and if he is continually exposed to this without help, the fear will become deep seated.

We need to show him either that it is nothing to fear by putting ourselves in the position of his seeing us dealing calmly and fearlessly with the object of his distress, or in the case of (for example) fear of loud noises – fireworks, thunderstorms, traffic passing close by – to build the bond of trust which tells him that WE are not afraid, we will protect him, he is safe with us, so no need to fear. However, thunderstorms are elemental, and fireworks mimic this, and as dogs instinctively know that they can be dangerous, sometimes a calming substance such as Pet Remedy can work alongside your calm reassuring presence to combat this natural (and justified) fear.

So far as objects are concerned, the hoover, broom, and the good old laser light, are prime suspects, and can result either in fear (if the human has not initially used the hoover in another room with the door shut, gradually progressing from there) or obsession in a dog, and often starts as a bit of fun’. Of course there are others, but these come up SO often.

How hilarious to see your puppy dashing after the hoover, puppy legs like Bambi on ice, or chasing the broom and latching on as you sweep, or chasing a beam of light up and down the wall! Not quite so funny as he grows up and the light cast on the wall from a wristwatch in the sun sends him into slavering hyperdrive, or the sound of a hoover ditto, and don’t even think you can sweep the floor without a fully grown dog clamping adult teeth onto the bristles!

Apart from being extremely irritating to you, these triggers cause your dog to obsess, and stress out.

Again, with patience and sensitivity, these obsessions/fears can be very successfully addressed and pretty much eradicated.

Then we come to true fearful reactivity to people and other animals.

There are so many scenarios which cause this, but all are down to the human not noticing a potential trigger immediately and defusing the situation effectively, which allows the fear to grow – and the dog feeling the need to find coping behaviours of his own.

These ‘coping’ solutions can take many forms – from a dog realising that growling, and then biting can keep over exuberant and invasive children or humans at bay (or more sadly and darker – abusive humans from hurting him), to a dog which has been attacked by another dog deciding that attack is the best form of defence, and thus becomes a ‘5 am walker’ – a dog which cannot be walked when there is any possibility of meeting other dogs.

Some dogs find that shutting down is the way to deal with stressful situations. They often will gather a blanket or old towel, cuddle it between their front legs, clamp their teeth around it and zone out. Fine if you steer well clear, but not so fine if you intrude – you may well be bitten, and in any case it is not good for a dog to feel the need to take himself out of a world that is too stressful to face.

So, what can you do?

With the right help there are very few problems which cannot be reduced to the level where the dog can lead a safe and good life – but you have to be realistic.

A deep seated coping behaviour is never really eradicated, but it can be successfully addressed and managed to the point where it is well within acceptable boundaries, if you are fully aware that this is what you have achieved – and no more.

I call these coping strategies ‘default mode’. The dog has found something which either soothes him, or has worked to repel unwanted ‘invaders’. This never really goes away, but if you are vigilant and careful not to put your dog in situations which you know could trigger this default mode – or if this is unavoidable, to be extremely watchful and ready to take action – you and your dog will be fine.

Once a habit has become ingrained at an early age it rarely leaves completely.

My favourite human comparison is nail biters.

You can school yourself to leave your nails alone, you can find lots of reasons not to do it (dogs rarely can), but in the end no matter how old you are, stressful situations will see your fingers creeping up to your mouth for a good old chomp! You don’t know you are doing this, it is an unconscious coping mechanism learned as a child and buried so deep in your psyche that it is part of you.

Remember this when you become so confident that your dog has let go HIS coping behaviour that you feel it has gone and you can call it ‘job done’.

It almost certainly has not. Enjoy your rehabilitated friend- but remember always to be vigilant.

Lesley Harris
May 2018
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