Why Does My Dog…The Most Commonly Asked Canine Conundrums Answered

We all have questions about our dogs and why they do certain things and can't shake certain habits. This month we take some of your most common behaviour questions and ask top experts to offer their advice.

...Never Come When Called?

From an early age, dogs can be taught this most simple of commands. The importance of this function can be clarified by any dog owner who has had a dog run off into traffic or some other dangerous situation when being called back. The quality of your relationship will depend on the trust you have in your dog to return to you when commanding him to do so, otherwise you will find yourself being fearful to let your dog run free, whether in the garden, at the park or anywhere where there is enough space to necessitate the command to return to you.

The most common reasons for a dog not coming when called centre around early experiences associated with the command. Establishing leadership is essential to ensuring that your dog will return promptly on command, whatever the temptation to do otherwise. Your response to a disobedient reaction to this command can be the difference between a long and arduous campaign to assure the dog it is in his interests to return, or a rather more simple series of sessions demonstrating practically the benefits to him of returning when called.

Take this common scenario as an example of what not to do, no matter how frustrated you may get.

Upon receiving the ‘return’ command, the dog not only fails to return promptly but continues what he is doing until he decides he wants to return. Eventually he returns of his own accord. At this point it is easy and very tempting to punish the dog for his disobedience. A firm tug when the lead is on, or a verbal reprimand may, at this point, seem like appropriate measures to take. However, it is at this point that the dog has actually demonstrated the desired behaviour, he has returned. Punishing him now will engender a negative association with returning to you. You will effectively be teaching your dog not to come when called.

The safest environment to begin your campaign to have your dog return when called is in your home. It does not matter if the need for this command never arises in the home, the aim is to make your dog want, more than anything else that could possibly tempt him, to return to you upon your command.

Why Does My Dog...The Most Commonly Asked Canine Conundrums Answered

In your yard or house, put the dog on an extendable leash. Designate a distance you will allow him to wander before you correct him. Allow him to go, and then firmly and confidently call his name followed by whichever command you intend to use. (It is essential that you are consistent with which command you use. Whether it is ‘come’ or ‘here’, only use one command for one function to avoid confusion. The word ‘come’ contains hard consonant sounds and is more easily distinguishable. The intonation of your command should always remain the same too.) Do not repeat your command over and over, give the dog an amount of time to react to your command (this amount of time should be reduced as he becomes more responsive.)

Just before your dog hits the designated distance you have set out, administer the command. If he fails to return, your lead will prevent him going any further. At any point that he does return, reward him with praise and a treat. Make him associate returning on your command with reward.

Remember that during the early stages of these exercises, the freedom he has by not returning can be used as a reward. In a safe environment such as your yard, reward him by allowing him to wander away after he has returned and then continue to practice the command.

...Chase Other Dogs?

As with many behavioural problems, prevention is better than cure. This is no different when dealing with inter-dog aggression, chasing - or both. This is one of the hardest behaviours to effectively deal with, as some dogs may seek to establish their position through acts of aggression. Reducing the opportunities for this undesirable behaviour to occur is preferable to dealing with the consequences of an encounter between your dog and another dog you would rather avoid.

It’s worth noting that changes occurring in a dog’s general behaviour, of which one is an increased tendency to be aggressive, could be medically related rather than a behavioural trait and veterinary attention or advice may be more appropriate than behavioural attention.

Contributed by Frances Gartland, dog behaviourist.

“I have encountered many instances of chasing where the instigator of the chase has had such a behaviour corrected instantly by his subject via a bite, growl or some other defensive reaction. Many times, the chaser learns from his mistake and realises that to chase another dog could result in a painful end. Other cases however, have demonstrated that certain dogs chase or instigate fighting in spite of what has happened to them as a consequence.”

Very often chasing is part of a playful interaction. The dog initiating the play however may appear to be acting aggressively. In any such case, this behaviour should be dealt with by the owner.

In cases where two or more dogs live together and one is prone to instigating fights or chase, the issue is one of dominance. Confusion arising through either dog not knowing their place in the pack can result in aggression. In situations where this is the case, it is important not to accidentally reward either dog through giving attention in reaction to an undesirable behaviour. Usually one dog will be the main instigator, it will seem wholly appropriate to punish, correct and physically prevent this by involving yourself in the situation. Yes, this often is necessary to avoid injury to either dog, but be aware of encouraging this behaviour by giving attention to the instigating dog.

“Look for opportunities where your dog would ordinarily chase or initiate a fight with another dog. Reward your dog before he has a chance to let you down. This way you are actively preventing the situation and conditioning your dog to associate his failure to chase or fight another dog with praise. Always make sure you can offer your dog a more tempting option in situations where a chase may be likely.”- Frances Gartland.

Take this situation for example.

When out with your dog, keep him on lead. In any situation where another dog is present, divert his attention from that dog with fuss and a treat. Show the dog that not paying attention to other dogs is preferable to paying attention to them. If at any point the dog strains at the leash, barks or stares at the other dog, immediately refrain from giving praise and if necessary correct the dog. Only correct the dog before he has chance to chase or initiate a fight.  This will take time, but should prove to be an effective means of controlling this behaviour.

...Try To Escape?

Reduce the appeal of escaping. It is often tempting, if for example your dog gets out of the yard only to be discovered next door, to lavish attention on the dog you thought you may have lost. Don’t do this at it reinforces the desire in the dog to receive ‘praise’ for getting out.

If you can safely avoid it, don’t chase after your dog. This can be mistaken for ‘play’, instead issue a command to return. If there is an obvious danger and you need to chase the dog, make sure he is aware from your mannerism that you are not playing.

Reduce the risk of an escape by securing your garden; see our guide to making your home and garden escape proof in this issue.

Constant escape attempts are an indicator of deeper lying problems and in such cases are not always behavioural, they are quite often caused by a nearby bitch being in season, or a pre-disposed roaming instinct that some dogs have.

Being aware of your dog’s whereabouts and not giving the opportunity for an escape on a plate, by not leaving doors open perhaps, are all good ways of reducing the risk of an escape.

...Have Separation Anxiety?

Contributed by Karen L Overall of the Centre for Neurobiology and Behaviour, Psychiatry Department, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Separation anxiety is one of the most common and most devastating behavioural conditions diagnosed world-wide in pet dogs.  As is true for most behavioural conditions, the signs associated with separation anxiety are non-specific, and for dogs to improve an accurate diagnosis must be made.   In profound cases of separation anxiety, dogs can be left alone for no more than minutes before they begin to panic and exhibit the behaviours associated with their anxiety.  If left untreated, separation anxiety can and will diminish the quality of life for both owner and dog.

Although elimination, destruction, and vocalization are the most obvious and hence the most commonly reported behaviours associated with separation anxiety, it’s important to realize that dog owners complain about these behaviours because they are easy to recognize and are problems for the dog owner.   It is less easy to recognize dogs that are distressed when left, but exhibit less obvious signs like withdrawal and inactivity, salivation, soft whimpering (or frank barking and howling if there are no near neighbours), and pacing.   These dogs are at least equally affected by separation anxiety, but their problems are not problems for the dog owners, so they seldom get help.

Some dogs respond either more quickly to a stimulus, or react more intensely to a given stimulus than other dogs.  At some level this “hyper-reactivity” is probably truly pathological and represents yet another manifestation of some neurochemical variation associated with anxiety.  If so, the more frequently the dog reacts to the anxiety provoking stimulus, the worse and more rapid the response.  At some point any exposure can then result in a full-blown, non-graduated anxious reaction in which true panic may be involved.  Accordingly, anticipation and early treatment is critical for these individuals, again supporting the concept that behavioural phenotype and underlying neurochemical response are linked in a dynamic way.  This means that behaviour modification programs must work to alter the physiological signs associated with the physical signs of distress that the dog exhibits.  Accordingly, encouraging and rewarding a relaxed state (e.g., deep breaths, a slowing of heart and respiratory rates) rather than a posture (e.g., sitting) is essential to both using behaviour modification correctly and to not making the dog worse.

Early intervention can only be accomplished by understanding the spectrum of signs exhibited in related conditions.  When the diagnoses of separation anxiety, thunderstorm phobia, and noise phobia co-occur the signs of each appear worse and more intense than when either occurs alone.  If such dogs follow the pattern common for co-morbid diagnoses in humans, longer persistence of the signs and a less favourable overall outcome may occur   In human medicine, childhood separation anxiety is seen as an important antecedent in adult panic disorder, and is prevalent as an undercurrent in the dreams of human panic disorder patients.  This suggests that in humans, as in pets, separation anxiety can occur separate from panic disorder and other phobia-related conditions, but that when the two co-occur the interaction is an important factor in the assessment and treatment of either.   If the phobic reactions to noise and storms are related to panic in dogs, such interactions are important.

Finally, any time a dog exhibits destruction, elimination, vocalization, salivation, pacing, or withdrawal only in the absence or lack of access (e.g., a “virtual” absence) to their people, regardless of the age of the pet, the veterinarian should ascertain the pattern of the behaviours and decide if they meet the criteria to make a diagnosis of separation anxiety.  Questions about the presence and pattern of these behaviours should be included in all histories for all visits because the problem is among the most common canine problems, and yet is so often missed in its early stages.  Because rescued and re-homed animals are particularly at risk for the presentation of signs associated with separation anxiety when statistically compared with dogs with other behavioural diagnoses, early intervention may stop the problem from progressing, and break the relinquishment cycle. Furthermore, dogs with a previous history of separation anxiety that has resolved are at risk for a worsened presentation of signs in the event of a relapse.

...Struggle To Cope When Travelling In The Car?

The key is to make sure that if your dog suffers from travel sickness, you reduce the chances of him being sick by reducing the excitement or panic associated with car travel.

If you have a journey planned, pay special attention to their diet prior to travelling. Be aware that a dog on an empty stomach has a considerably lower chance of being sick as a dog that has eaten, make sure that there is sufficient time before eating and beginning the journey for the food to digest thoroughly if you need to feed your dog before setting off.

You can also try to eliminate the element of fear and panic that some dogs associate with car travel. Let the dog associate itself with the car and make being in the car a pleasant experience. Before you even take a journey with your dog, let him explore the car. Give him treats and reassure him.

The next step should be to make small journeys in the car. Firstly you should take journeys that don’t go anywhere except for back home. That way the car will not immediately be associated with the excitement of a new destination. Then take slightly longer journeys to places such as the park, the beach or anywhere the dog likes to be.

This should prepare the dog for his first car journey to a new place. Make the dog’s area in the car as comfortable as possible. Include his favourite toys, blankets and anything that he can associate with home and security.

If you are a user of public transport such as trains or buses, your preparation needs to be a lot more thorough. Getting a group of friends with whom the dog is familiar to travel with you on your first few bus or train journeys is a good way of distracting your dog from all of the unfamiliar and new noises, faces, smells and movements.

You could also speak with your veterinarian, there are some medicines, both herbal and veterinary which could help.

It is inappropriate to punish the dog if he is sick when travelling as it is an involuntary reaction to a situation. It is in your hands to ensure that the risk of this happening has been reduced. To some dogs, the physical act of being sick can be traumatic, this can often cause a cyclical sequence of events that make travelling an unpleasant experience for the dog. If he is sick when travelling, it is important to comfort the dog (not reward). Otherwise the association with being sick can cause panic when boarding the bus or train, which heightens the risk of being sick again.

If you have a doggy dilemma or pet peeve, you can send it to us at www.k9magazine.com and we'll do our best to feature your question next time!

One comment

  1. My dog Daisy is a staff x boxer.She is just over a year old and I have had her for about 6 months. I was told when I got her that she was great with
    people which she isnt, that she was good with other dogs which she most certainly is not and that she had her 1st yearly injection which she has now. My main concearn is the way she behaves around other dogs and of course people, especially younger children. One time i was out with her and a friend of mine bought her new Jack Russel with her. As soon as Daisy saw the JR she went straight for her. If my mate hadnt picked her dog up i would hate to think what could have happened. Daisy is a beautiful good natured soft baby indoors but as soon as she goes over the doorstep she turns into a monster.Iam worried she will be reported and taken away from me. Any advice?

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