As we start the new year, I am already starting to receive calls from desperate pandemic puppy and rescue dog owners struggling with some of the most common dog behaviour problems including toileting inside, being destructive as well as reacting aggressively towards other dogs and people.
Most of these dog behaviour problems can be attributed to COVID-19 lockdowns and a lack of proper socialisation, anxiety and/or boredom – with many puppies missing out on the critical positive life experiences outside of the home that all puppies need in their first 12 – 16 weeks of life.
For rescue dogs who may already be prone to anxiety, including separation anxiety, it is only in recent weeks the true extent of their issues are becoming evident as lifestyles and environments start to change including larger gatherings, family holidays, and many returning to work.
I have had many people ask why their dog has started peeing inside including on the couch or beds, or is starting to bark and chew destructively, while others are concerned their dog has started snapping at people or other dogs out on walks.
Never punish your dog for something they did while you were out
For those that are returning to work or are leaving their dogs home alone more than before, it is important they aren’t punished when people return home to find their dog has soiled inside or chewed on a piece of furniture, as this will only increase their anxiety. A dog can’t associate the punishment with a past event and they definitely don’t do it to ‘get back at owners’ for leaving them, a common misconception I often hear.
It is important to understand it is usually a sign of anxiety and/or boredom so it is important the underlying cause is identified and addressed.
Understand aggression is usually due to fear
The majority of dogs that react and lunge, bark or try to bite other dogs or people are generally displaying fear-based aggression to what they perceive as a threat, and again, punishment just intensifies the situation.
Unfortunately, there is no magic wand or a one-size-fits-all approach to treating anxiety as the causes can vary from genetics to past negative experiences, poor or inconsistent leadership and boundaries, fear and more, so it is important to speak to a Vet and/or dog trainer to assist with behaviour issues as early as possible.
However, as a starting point, all owners can ensure that for mild anxiety or boredom related issues they are doing a few basics things to help their dog adjust to their changing environments and ensure they are getting the mental and physical stimulation all dogs need each day.
TIPS TO HELP KEEP COMMON DOG BEHAVIOUR PROBLEMS AT BAY
Exercise: Ensure your dog receives daily exercise appropriate to its breed age and temperament. ‘Scenting’ is really important to a dog’s mental and physical wellbeing so getting outside of home to explore their neighbourhood is important for all dogs. If your rescue dog is a bit anxious around other dogs or people, do this during quieter times in the day or evening.
Get them to work for their food: Treat or food dispensing interactive toys and puzzles are great to mentally and physically stimulate dogs. Rotate and leave 2-3 of them out each day. Freeze some meat or treats in water in an ice-cream container or throw their kibble around the yard so they have to work for their food like they would in the wild.
Provide alternatives: If your dog tends to dig and you’ve tried everything else, you can use a sandpit to divert the digging to a designated area and bury treats or toys to encourage them here. For chewers or teething puppies, get appropriate sturdy chew toys and encourage them to chew those and block off access to furniture, items or areas they are being destructive to or with.
Human contact: Dogs need human companionship. The company of another pet is not always enough either. A dog walker is a great option.
Family Playtime: If your dog is one of the 20% left exclusively outdoors, it is vital the owner/family goes outside to spend time with the dog as often as possible throughout the day/evening. Ideally though, let your dog inside with you daily, as to them you are their pack, their family.
Obedience training: Short daily bouts of obedience training gives a dog something to think about and develops great owner leadership and bonding with your dog.
Routine and independence training
Dogs love routine so establish a strong daily routine with exercise, set feed times and some alone time to re-build their independence. At home physically distance yourself from your pet between three to five times a day, slowly building up the length of time they are alone. Create a positive association with being alone using treats, chews or interactive toys and praise quiet calm behaviour as often as you can.
Keep departures and arrivals home calm and change your daily routine when leaving the house so they aren’t anticipating your every move and building up their anxiety. See my video on this here.
Set clear and consistent boundaries
Setting clear and consistent boundaries and everyone in the family doing the same thing is important. Always reward desired behaviour and think about whether you might accidentally be reinforcing unwanted behaviour by giving the dog what it wants. An example of this is a jumping dog being told to get down or pushed down – this actually gives them the attention they wanted!
Remember dog behaviour problems don’t go away, they just get worse, and it is never too late to start!
About the Author: Lara Shannon is a certified dog behaviourist and trainer, Executive Producer and Host of Pooches at Play on Channel 10 and editor of Poochesatplay.com. Lara runs her own dog training business in Melbourne’s Bayside area, is a sought after pet expert speaker and Author of Eat, Play, Love (Your Dog).