What Is Your Dog Trying to Tell You?

By Lyda Gould

Though many shelters are experiencing a boom in adoptions, too many pets are still being surrendered for a variety of very solvable, common behavioral issues.

What Your Dog Needs

Throughout all training, use only positive reinforcement. Never punish your dog for unwanted behavior. Always reinforce good  behavior with a reward or praise. Be patient. Any efforts to change behavior will only be successful with consistency and commitment. The issues presented below may take a few days, or even months, to remedy. If you do not feel you are able to manage your dog’s issues, or if you are concerned for your safety, we strongly advise you consider hiring a professional trainer or animal behaviorist.

Pulling on a Leash

Dogs pulling while on a leash is a very common problem. While it may seem like this is simply an inconvenient habit, robbing you of a pleasant outing with your dog, it can actually cause injury if the dog pulls you off your feet or yanks your arms when you are holding your child. In addition, the pressure from pulling can damage your dog’s sensitive throat, your shoulders, or your wrists.

Pulling is a natural behavior for your dog. They want to be out there sniffing out all the exciting stuff in their environment. They may even think they need to lead to make sure there are no dangers ahead for you. They don’t understand they need to walk with you. It’s also possible your dog has previously been “rewarded” for pulling. When you allow your dog to pull you to get to a favorite person or pup and they then get petted, loved on, or played with, you have actually rewarded them for the bad behavior. If this has happened, both you and your dog need to be retrained.

For the best leash training, use a sturdy nylon or leather lead. Avoid prong collars, which can be painful and injure your dog; retractable leads, which actually reward your dog for pulling and don’t provide good control; and regular harnesses that leash around the chest and clip on the back, which give your dog more power to pull. For truly strong dogs or troublesome cases, consider a front-clip halter or a head halter (not to be confused with a muzzle) to help you manage your dog. Before setting out on your walk, make sure your dog is calm. If they’re jumping at the outset, put the leash away and try again later, or get them into a sit-stay before heading out the door. Once outside, find an area with few distractions.

The first method to try is a very simple, passive approach. Whenever the dog pulls, stop walking and wait for the leash to relax before walking again. It’s that simple. Do this until the dog no longer pulls. If this is too passive for you, try the reverse direction method in which you stop, give an excited “let’s go” command, and immediately reverse direction from where the dog is pulling.

You may also combine these two methods into a stop-stand-change direction method whereby you stop, stand in place, and move in a new direction only when the dog is still and calm. This will have to be repeated a number of times at first, and you may feel as though you are not actually even walking because you’re turning or stopping continuously. However,if you are consistent and committed, the dog will catch on. Always praise and reward when your dog makes eye contact with you and when they follow your lead.

Note, it is important to compromise on sniffing and, of course, going to the bathroom. A dog may have to pull away from you to engage in sniffing behavior – akin to our texting – which is completely normal and should be allowed. Some dogs, particularly hounds, will actually sniff more than they walk.

Jumping on People

Jumping is how friendly dogs greet each other, so it’s natural for your dog to try to do this with people they love or want to get to know. There’s no question it’s cute when they’re puppies, but allowing your dog to jump on people will eventually become a problem, especially around children or the elderly. Often it is exacerbated by dog-friendly visitors who unwittingly encourage the dog to jump up to greet them face to face or insist they “don’t mind” if the dog jumps on them. It is our responsibility to let it be known that jumping is never allowed. The mantra here is “all four on the floor.”

This is an easy one to practice at home, or with a willing friend.  Generally, you want your dog to sit before giving them attention, so practice the “Sit” command extensively with your dog. The distraction of a human that your dog loves ups the ante. Reward your dog for a “Sit” when a friend approaches and withdraw the friend when your dog jumps. Whenever the dog jumps up, withdraw or ignore them. Your dog does not get attention until all four paws, and preferably butt, are on the floor.

You can reward with a treat, hugs, kisses, pets, praise; but once they jump again, stand up, withdraw, and ignore. You can even turn your back if you need to, but if your dog is too excited, they could still jump up or nip to get attention. This exercise will need to be repeated many times over, and for a dog who has been jumping up for many years, this will need continuous practice. Be consistent! If you or a friend indulge them even once, they won’t understand why this time it is OK to jump up but other times it’s not.

House Training

Dogs and puppies do not naturally know they are supposed to do their business outside. It is our job to teach them to tell us when they need to go and to take them outside. Before beginning potty training, be sure there are no incontinence issues or medications, like steroids, that are known to cause frequent urination. You should plan on taking your dog out to potty upon waking, shortly after meals, after playtime, as soon as you return from work, and before bed. Do not withhold water as this can lead to medical problems. If you work long hours, consider hiring someone to walk your dog during the day while you are away.

Crate training or keeping your dog in a gated area of the house until house training is complete will assist in a successful result. Dogs are motivated to keep their living area clean. They are far less likely to soil the same area where they are sleeping. When you come home, let the dog out of the crate and immediately direct them outside to relieve themselves. When you do take your dog out, tell them to “go pee” or “potty” and take them to the same spot every time. If they smell where they’ve urinated before, they’ll be more likely to go in the same place every time, forming a habit.

When they do go to the bathroom outside, make a big deal of it.  Shower your dog with praise and continue to use the vocabulary that signals what they are doing is good. Conversely, when accidents happen inside, do not scold your dog. They’re still learning, and it may mean you need to adjust the potty schedule. Just clean it up with a strong product so as to remove any evidence, try to figure out what happened, and move on.

Be aware that puppy mill and pet shop dogs  may be especially difficult to housetrain. For these, you may need to consult a trainer for help.

Destructive Behavior when Home Alone

According to the ASPCA “one of the most common complaints of pet parents is that their dogs are disruptive or destructive when left alone.” Activities such as chewing, digging,howling, barking, or inappropriate elimination are just some of examples of bad house manners.

First, we should differentiate between bad house manners and separation anxiety. Patricia McConnell’s booklet “I’ll Be Home Soon” does an excellent job of explaining the difference. Bad house manners area behavioral/training issue. Separation anxiety is a serious emotional issue and may require the help of a professional dog trainer. Here,we’ll address bad house manners.

There’s no need to feel guilty about leaving your dog at home while you are out “bringing home the bacon.” Your dog is safe and snug, has a cushy bed, toys, and fresh water while you’re stressed out at work. Avoid being overly dramatic when you leave the house or return home. Keep it low key with a calm, loving “Bye bye” and “Hi there.”

Your goal should be to teach your dog good house manners so they can have free run of the house during the day. Crate training until that is accomplished may be necessary. You should make sure you are providing your dog with the level of exercise and activity that is appropriate for their age and breed. No amount of training will compensate for a bored, high-energy dog.

If your dog is eliminating around the house while you are away, it’s time to step back and revisit house training. If it’s a new occurrence in a previously housetrained dog, perhaps a visit to the vet is called for.

Chewing is a normal dog behavior. Dogs, like small children, discover their world with their noses and mouths. Tearing the stuffing out of toys or sofa cushions is a blast! How are they supposed to know that the pretty sofa pillow or chair leg isn’t something they are supposed to chew on? Redirection is your job.  Provide your dog with something really irresistible to chew on, like a Sterile Beef Bone or Kong toy stuffed with their favorite filling,  such as cheese, peanut butter, or liverwurst. Calmly provide one just before you leave the house. Provide a treat-dispensing toy in the house for them to find and play with while you are gone. Use deterrents such as Bitter Apple, spiky carpet runners, or Boundary Dog Repellent to keep your dog away from things they shouldn’t chew on.

Some dogs just naturally bark more than others but your dog’s constant barking while you are at work can lead to troubles with neighbors and landlords. One reason for barking maybe because your dog is guarding your house. If they have access to a window on a busy street, they may bark at anything that goes by or approaches the house. They bark; the perceived intruder leaves; mission accomplished; and the behavior is established. Consider housing your dog in an area of the house where they won’t have access to this kind of stimuli. You might want to put security cameras around the house to see what time of day your dog gets excited and what is going on at that time. Music to block out some disturbing sounds is another option.

Many dogs are calmer in their crates or in a smaller, confined space than in large open spaces. If you want your dog to think of their crate as their beloved, comfy den, make sure you never use crate time as a punishment. Combined with the ratcheting down of the drama of leaving, confinement of your dog in a crate with their favorite toy and bed while you are at work may be just the ticket to keeping the destructive behavior at bay. Just be sure that your dog’s crate time is as short as possible. Give them run of the house as soon as they can be trusted for as long as possible.

Escape Artists

When dogs try to escape, it’s generally because they are bored, feel isolated, or have a desire to mate (if they haven’t been spayed/neutered). Some dogs are born escape artists. They know how to find the one weakness in your chain link, or the chipmunk hole under your wooden fence, or they bolt for the door at precisely the moment you open it. The best solution in this case is prevention. Hopefully, if you’ve adopted your dog, you were given fair warning if the shelter had records from a previous owner or shelter staff witnessed the dog’s tendencies to escape.

When outside with your dog, even if you have a fenced yard, it is highly recommended that you leash them and stay with them. Consider creating a double-door system either in your fence outside or inside at the doors of your home using baby gates. For some dogs, having a leash on even while you are with them inside the house is recommended. If you know you’ll be having visitors, put the dog in another room until everyone has left. Don’t count on being able to hold their collar while you open the door and greet your guests.

When walking your dog, here are a couple of recommendations:

First, you know that loop handle at the end of the leash? Instead of holding it in your fingers, put your whole hand through so it sits on your wrist, then hold on to the length of the leash.

Second, try using a waist leash that ties around your waist instead of being held in the hand. Be especially vigilant when children are around. Repeat and ingrain in your kids the importance of keeping doors closed to keep the dog safe. If you know you have a dog who bolts on a leash, it may be better to have a policy of only allowing adults to walk the dog.

Food/Resource Guarding

Resource guarding is normal dog behavior. According to the ASPCA, “wild animals who successfully protect their valuable resources are more likely to survive….” However, in the home, this behavior can  be dangerous around people and other pets.

Resource guarding can vary from a relatively benign issue of coveting a favorite toy to violent aggression over toys, treats, or food. If you are concerned your dog’s resource guarding behavior could lead to physical harm, we recommend you seek professional guidance before attempting your own training exercises. Most  trainers will use a combination of counter-conditioning and desensitization exercises to remove the dog’s attachment to items. Methods used are generally carried out in stages.

If you currently have a dog with food aggression, always be sure to feed them without any other pets or children around, preferably in a quiet part of the house. If a favorite toy is the focus of the guarding behavior, note that removing it or throwing it away will likely result in a transfer of focus to another item. It is important that the behavior itself be addressed. The ASPCA website offers a helpful guide for first steps as well as resources for professional help, if needed.

Don’t Give Up

Dogs behavior is based on instinct, and sometimes their behavior leads to chewed up shoes, peed-on rugs, and our own frayed nerves. However, humans domesticated dogs thousands of years ago, so they now also have a strong instinct to obey their leaders (you), which makes them very trainable. For the vast majority of canine behavioral issues, there are answers – it’s just a matter of understanding your dog’s behavior and finding the right solution.

Please don’t give up too quickly or decide that giving up your dog is the right choice. Taking your dog to a shelter could mean your dog will be euthanized when all that’s needed is for you to understand what your dog is trying to tell you.

You can find additional canine behavioral resources at various online resources, and SPCA NOVA lists a few resources at www.spcanova.org/health/caninehealth.php. Additionally, if you’re considering giving up your dog for a behavior-related issue, please contact us at information@spcanova.org to see if we can offer suggestions for resolving the issue

The right kind of leash and lead, like the nylon one Vito is wearing, will give you the most control over your dog while out walking.
Ernie tears into his favorite ducky. Giving dogs appropriate things to chew will help keep them from going after things like your shoes.
Naomi used to be quite an escape artist, but now her wanderings are limited to supervised outside time.