The Misunderstanding in a Dogs “Behavior Problems”

By Lydia DesRoche, FDM

I often see advertisements for how to fix behavior problems in dogs. The list of behavior problems, inevitably include barking, lunging, jumping up, pulling on the leash, separation anxiety, not coming when called and more. 

It’s easy to understand how all of those things can be frustrating for a dog parent but to label them “behavior problems” is simply unfair, and ultimately ineffective. 

Photo by Lisa Hufcut

From the beginning of dog’s relationship with humans, they were artificially selected for specific behaviors. We wanted them to help us hunt, to ward off danger, catch and kill vermin, to keep livestock safe, to keep fleas off of us and more. The vast majority of dogs are no longer performing their genetically programmed tasks. Still, there are very few breeders who take that into account. It would seem like a great idea to get a puppy from champion parents, but if they are champions at anything but being family dogs, they might come with some needs that are difficult for the average family to fulfill. 

A while back, I received a call from a neighbor who was having trouble with his miniature schnauzer barking at other dogs on leash. I questioned him thoroughly about her interactions with other dogs and her recall. It turned out she was quite good with other dogs, and she stayed close to her owners on-leash. I suggested they take her to the park in the morning before nine when dogs are allowed to play off-leash (they had no idea this was a “thing”!).

I suggested they take her to the park from 8 to 9 every morning for the next week and then call me to let me know how it was going. A week later he said the problem was solved and they were so happy.  

Very simply, it just took the dog socializing with other dogs in an unrestricted (off-leash) environment to get their dog be a dog; free and playful and socializing.  Dogs can’t always have that in the city and it can be challenging for those who are busy and don’t live near the park, but the point is, both generally and in this specific instance, some dogs need to be able to be dogs with other dogs and enjoy themselves freely. All dogs need a reasonable amount of agency in their lives. They need time to be off leash and make their own choices. 

The larger point is what we define as “problem behaviors” (barking at other dogs is just one example) can in large part be our own expectations of the dog, rather than considering the expectations and natural tendencies of the dog, and making sure they feel fulfilled.

Life in the city can be challenging for a dog, but here are a few things you can do to make your life with your dog, more enjoyable for both of you.

Walk at quieter times of day. No such thing as quiet but you can try to find a time in the day when it a little less crazy. 

Walk on the widest, cleanest streets. This way you can scan the street for garbage in advance. 

Allow your dog to go at their own pace. Think time not distance. Set a timer for half of your walk so you know when to turn and head home. 

Let your dog choose the route as long as it’s safe and comfortable for everyone. Obviously there will be times you need to make an executive decision, but allowing your dog to observe and gather information about the environment on their own terms builds trust and confidence. Try it for a couple of weeks and you’ll notice your dog paying MORE attention to you. 

Be strategic about when you ask for your dog’s attention. Let’s say your dog is sniffing around something, as long as they’re not heading towards a pile of broken glass, watch them carefully and wait for them to finish. That’s when you say their name and offer them a treat or a tushie scratch. 

We need to think more about the dog and their natural tendencies, and less about our own expectations of them — it’s a balancing act, like everything.  But truly connecting with your dog on their terms throughout even just a walk for example, creates a strong relationship. Your dog will learn to check in with you frequently, and they will pay attention on the occasion you need to interrupt — and soon, what you may have once identified as a “problem behavior” could go away, simply because you’ve given your dog the freedom to be themselves.

Photo by Lisa Hufcut

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