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In the Doghouse: A Guide to Behavioral Problems in Dogs

In the beginning, before the days of behavioral psychology, man intuitively knew that rewarding a dog’s desired behavior and punishing unwanted behavior would eventually encourage the dog to conform more closely to his wishes and expectations. And so, training was created. Learning about canine training and behavior can help you understand what underlies your dog’s behavioral problems and will help you acquire the patience and know-how necessary to work with him.

Even after formal obedience training and as recipients of oodles of love, some dogs develop disagreeable habits or unwanted behaviors. So it’s imperative that you learn about the potential problems that may occur, how to curtail these behaviors, and how to re-train your pet. With proper know-how, your dog can become a loving, obedient, and enjoyable member of the family.

Start Them Young

The best way to deal with behavior problems is to avoid them in the first place. Keep an eye out for common issues such as inappropriate elimination, digging, chewing, separation anxiety, and fear. But there are several others, so be sure you’re aware of everything and watch out for warning signs.

Once you understand what is behind the behavior, you are well on your way to correcting the problem.

Special Circumstances for Rescue Dogs

Rescuing a dog is a generous and rewarding action, which will provide an underprivileged dog with the love and care he craves, and you will be rewarded with a new best friend. Though there are endless positives to rescuing, there are also some common health and behavioral problems that may affect your new pal.

The cause of their problems, if they have any at all, is often related to their former life, the care they received, and where you are acquiring the dog. A dog adopted from a shelter or rescue group should have fewer problems than a dog rescued directly from an abusive home. Abuse, neglect of medical care and preventative treatments, malnourishment, unsanitary living conditions, and close quarters with other dogs are some predisposing factors.

Is Hypothyroidism the Issue?

Hypothyroidism is a disorder of the thyroid gland — two butterfly-shaped lobes located in the neck just below the voice box. These glands are responsible for producing and secreting thyroid hormone (thyroxine), which affects nearly all body systems. Most significantly, the thyroid glands regulate your dog’s metabolic rate. In hypothyroidism, not enough thyroxine is produced and that causes metabolism to slow.

Physically, dogs with hypothyroidism tend to gain weight, may have bouts of diarrhea or constipation, and may suffer from various skin problems (e.g. dry, flaky skin and excess shedding). They may have an increased susceptibility to infections, have a lowered tolerance for cold, and may tire easily.

Dogs with classical hypothyroidism often seem lethargic and depressed. However, dogs with a “mild” or sub-clinical affliction may show a different set of behaviors. They may become anxious or fearful, become more aggressive, exhibit a compulsive disorder (e.g. excessive grooming or tail-chasing). Some dogs may also appear hyperactive and/or be slow learners.

Assessing whether hypothyroidism is contributing to (or causing) a dog’s behavior problems is the first step.

Compulsive Behavior

Compulsive behaviors are repetitive sequences of behavior that are fairly consistent in their presentation. They do not appear to serve any obvious purpose, although some argue that they function to reduce a dog’s stress level. Compulsive behaviors may be time consuming, may result in physical injury to the dog, may significantly impair the dog’s ability to function normally, and may impair the dog’s relationship with his owner.

Compulsive behavior frequently appears to be triggered by anxiety or stress. Conditions known to cause anxiety in susceptible dogs include a change in the social or physical environment or long periods of solitary confinement.

Initially, a dog may only show the repetitive behavior when exposed to a situation that is stressful or increases his level of arousal. When a dog is repeatedly placed in a situation of conflict, the repetitive behavior exhibited may become ingrained. Once incorporated into the dog’s behavioral repertoire, compulsive behaviors will be performed even if the initiating stressors are removed. At this stage, the dog appears unable to control his own actions.

Attention Seekers

Both we and our dogs engage in a little attention getting behavior from time to time, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that — as long as the behavior stays within reasonable limits. If a dog barks at his owner as if to say, “Hey you! Over here!” — that’s perfectly acceptable communication if your dog has something to convey and is otherwise being ignored. Likewise, if you are engrossed in conversation and your dog paws at your leg to solicit your attention, or to be petted, it’s no big deal to respond if you’re up for it.

But what you have to remember is that your dog will quickly learn what works and what doesn’t according to how you respond. If you always (or even worse, sometimes) cave in to unreasonable requests, you will get even more of the obnoxious behavior in the future. The principle involved is “positive reinforcement,” which effectively ensures that you reap what you sow. Even telling your dog to stop, or reprimanding him, can be rewarding for some dogs. The principle here is that some attention, even negative attention, is better than no attention at all.

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