How to Handle Trouble Behavior in Puppies
If you are the first owner to bring your puppy home, they should be a clean slate, quick to learn, and ready to bond and follow your lead. As you begin socialization training, be gentle and patient with your puppy. Keep their home and new experiences age-appropriate.
However, some puppy’s first weeks and months are stressful or missing a nurturing mother and litter of playmates. Other young dogs develop unwanted behaviors due to limited socialization and training. The good news is—most dogs respond to treatment and training for even the worst habits and undesirable behaviors.
“Overexposure may result in excessive stimulation, stress responses, and fear, while underexposure may result in anxiety, fearfulness, and altered temperament development.”
– Management of Pregnant and Neonatal Dogs, Cats, and Exotic Pets, by Cheryl Lopate
The most common behavioral issues reported are aggression toward owners and strangers, excessive protection of the owner, excessive barking, separation anxiety, and house soiling. But before assuming your puppy has a behavioral problem, consider other reasons why an incident may have occurred. Some problems develop due to:
- Pup is having a bad day. Even your puppy will have off days!
- Injury or medical condition. Physical and behavioral issues are often connected.
- Lack of exercise. Does the dog have pent up energy or seem bored?
- Stress. Is something in their environment causing fear or anxiety?
Compulsive and repetitive behaviors often have an underlying related medical issue and owners should first consult with a veterinarian. There are many physical conditions that affect behavior in dogs. It’s possible your puppy is in distress.
Veterinarians conduct a medical evaluation before coming to a behavioral diagnosis as both illness and behavioral issues often occur together. Schedule an appointment if you witness a sudden onset of aggression, personality changes, self-mutilation, excessive itching, hyperactivity, or abnormal elimination patterns.
Normal Canine Behavior
Before determining if your puppy has a problem, review what is natural behavior for dogs. Jumping, chewing, stealing, digging in trash, charging into people, begging, pulling on the leash, and scratching the door are common unwanted behaviors.
Determine whether your dog is attempting to communicate. Jumping may be a greeting ritual. Stealing food from the countertop and digging in the trash may be connected to hunting behaviors or solely for entertainment. Scratching at the door may be a request to urinate outside. Chewing is a primitive technique to gain nutrients from grinding bones.
There may be a moment when your puppy is not sure how to handle a new experience. Over time, fearful experiences develop into aggression and phobias. There are four types of fear responses: freeze, flight, fight, and erratic. Learn to recognize these responses in your dog.
Freeze is when the dog cowers and waits for an event to end. Flight makes a dog back up, turn away, or run. A fight response will appear as barking, growling, lunging, snapping, or biting. Erratic responses are several unconnected behaviors like scratching themselves and jumping up and down to displace stress.
It’s important that you do not see these moments of fear as disobedience. Your dog’s expression of fear is an opportunity to teach them appropriate responses which lead to healthy coping mechanisms.
Signs of Stress
Several of these signs together could indicate your puppy is under stress:
- Flattened ears, cowering, trembling, whining, or tucked tail
- Wet paw pads
- Turning away, avoiding, escaping, or presses against you
- Licking lips, yawning
Fearful dogs are known to have had fewer social experiences as puppies. Socialize your new dog at a young age. Always create space for your puppy to escape a situation.
Over time, fear develops into anxiety-related disorders including phobias and separation anxiety. Don’t let it get that far! The biggest affect you have in alleviating separation anxiety is through daily exercise. If your pup releases enough energy throughout the day, they won’t feel as nervous when you’re away.
If your puppy expresses aggressive behavior, it will first present between six months and two years of age. Normal aggressive behavior will begin with a signal, so knowing your puppy’s personality and typical behavior should alert you when they are in distress.
Aggressive behavior is considered abnormal when a reaction is out of proportion to the threat. For instance, if your dog is trained to alert you to visitors, it is not appropriate if it quickly escalates to biting.
Abnormal aggression is meant to harm or threaten and can be offensive or defensive. Offensive aggression is an action meant to achieve a goal like grabbing food, obtaining the desired resting place, or in a contest for dominance.
Defensive aggression is in response to aggression initiated by another person or animal and may be a real or perceived threat. Dogs who have experienced extreme pain or fear may be prompted into aggressive behavior by anxiety from past trauma.
Dogs without formal training outside the home are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior during their lifetime. Consider both puppy socialization classes and formal training with professional dog trainers.
It may be frightening to witness, but don’t give up on your pup if you see aggressive behavior! Dogs are generally responsive to treatment for even the most unwanted behaviors. Aggression or violent acting out against you, another animal, or person is a reason to contact a specialist. Just to be safe, start with your veterinarian since the behavior may be caused by a medical condition or injury.
Retrain Your Dog
If you haven’t tried basic command training, you should start up right away. If you have, keep in mind that puppies may backslide in progress sometimes – especially if they had a hard time the first time around. Nuisance behaviors are those which may be normal but often unwanted within a household. Whether the behaviors are instinctual or common dog communication, you still want your puppy to follow the house rules.
If you want a disciplined dog you must be a disciplined trainer. Your puppy will learn from your lessons what you consider to be acceptable behavior. You must be consistent, meaning every time a behavior occurs you always respond with the same training technique.
For example, yesterday, you came home from work to find the trash can tipped over and wrappers and food spread over the kitchen floor. Knowing that sometimes your dog finds food in the trash is a strong motivation to knock it over. To them, it’s definitely worth the effort just to see if there is something fun in the bin. Your response as a trainer must always be to reinforce good and wanted behavior.
Manage your home spaces to assist in training your puppy. Start by putting away objects that lead to nuisance behavior. For example, do not allow your dog into the kitchen if they look for food on the countertop. Set up barriers, use a playpen, hide the trash can, close curtains to the view outside.
Some of your puppy’s behavior is normal for a dog but you still don’t want them to do it. How do you change unwanted instinctual behavior? Your approach to unwanted puppy behavior is positive reinforcement. Redirect unwanted behavior by ignoring it. When the puppy takes the action you want, reward them every time.
Current scientific research doubts all dogs descended from wolves. The human/canine relationship should not be structured like a wolf pack. Do not assert dominance in order to place your dog in the alpha position. Do not growl or pin your puppy down. When humans train dogs in this manner, they teach the dog to respond to humans similarly. Dogs who are dominated eventually attempt to assert dominance over another animal or human. Watch your own body language. Don’t bend or loom over your puppy. Set aside frustration and wait until you are in a friendly state of mind to begin a lesson. Use a happy voice.
Rewards-based training is the method to use. Puppies want to please the person to whom they have the closest bond. Don’t worry that positive reinforcement results in “spoiling” your puppy. Dogs who are treated as if they are human or part of the family do not exhibit more behavioral problems than any other dog.
Focus on teaching your puppy which behaviors you like. For example, praise your dog when they chew on appropriate toys. Or, ignore jumping and reward your puppy when they sit. Mark good behavior with a sound (eg. a clicker), verbal affirmation, and reward. Reward appropriate behavior every time you see it.
Reward and Reinforce
Discover what your puppy enjoys and use these things to reward and reinforce wanted behavior. Strengthen good manners by using everyday situations to expose your pup to appropriate behavior. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists sees it as asking your dog to say “please” before every encounter, event, action, and activity. Teach your dog to sit and stay before every action—like opening an outside door, meals, exiting a car, receiving a toy or ball, and attaching or removing a leash.
For every behavior you do not like, find an alternate behavior to replace it. Then, reward your pup after witnessing the opposite or desired behavior. Be patient, because your dog will likely try harder to keep the old behavior before abandoning it entirely.
Give your dog a job to promote mental health and happiness. A lack of physical and mental exercise leads to many nuisance behaviors. Remember, dogs want a job and to work hard for the things they receive. Both early life experiences and exercise affect anxiety in your dog. When your puppy gets enough exercise, you will find a tired dog who barks, chews and jumps less.