Behavior Issues

Combat Doggie Boredom

Sometimes the things that make a dog particularly desirable for us—intelligence, attentiveness, playfulness, youth—are the very things that can work against the dog owner when a dog is left to its own devices. None of us really want to leave our dogs alone, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.

As hidden doggie cams have shown, dogs get bored when left along with nothing to keep them occupied, and they will often get into “trouble” precisely because they are trying to find things to keep their little doggie brains occupied. A plush toy will only go so far to keep your dog busy, and then he or she will seek out other occupations such as chewing, swallowing small objects, barking incessantly, digging, howling, pacing, etc.

Many breeds have been created to look like stuff animals, and sometimes people forget that dogs are living, breathing beings that need stimulation just like we do. Clearly they don’t require the level of activity that humans require, but enduring hours of nothingness into perpetuity could make even the most steadfast companion go a little nuts.

Unfortunately we all can’t stay at home to play with our pets on a daily basis, but there are many ways you can make small inroads into keeping your best friend in a healthy state of mind, and not all of them cost money.

One of my personal favorites is to save all my extra paper goods (that would have ultimately gone into the trash or recycle bin, and re-use them one last time as a doggie puzzle or treat container. I save cardboard boxes, paper towel tubes, toilet paper tubes and paper bags, and any paper based packing materials.

When my dogs look bored, I get out one of my saved “containers” and put a few treats inside, and then close it up again and place it by the dog and encourage him to “find the treat” inside. It doesn’t take much prompting for him to fall to the task with gusto.

My female dog finds boxes a bit too much effort, but she LOVES paper bags and cardboard tubes, so I save those for her. It’s super easy to just pinch closed the ends of the tubes. Granted it takes her less time, but it’s still fun for her.

Another way I make my “leaving the house” time more acceptable for my dogs is to set up a “treasure hunt” with tiny bits of treats that I “hide” all over the house. Most of them are in plain sight but they still have to sniff them out and it takes them much longer to finish this game, and even after they have found most all of the treats they will continue to search for awhile.

I love staying and watching them playing this game, as well, because it’s so rewarding to see them keenly attuned to discovery…ears pricked forward, neck stretched out, eagerly scenting the air…isn’t this the type of activity they are really built for, after all?

Of course, these methods aren’t a substitute for walks (which stimulate their brain when they sniff along the route) and exercise (which keeps their brain chemistry optimal), but they help.

For those of you willing to shell out some cash to keep your dog busy, doggie puzzle toys are becoming more popular, and will keep your pooch occupied for a longer period. If you have friends with dogs you could set up an exchange to trade puzzle toys when your dogs get them figured out. Typically these puzzles will have varying degrees of difficulty, and some will let you work up to the hardest level so your dog doesn’t get so discouraged that he gives up before finding the treats.

Another way to keep your dog’s mind busy is to purchase a few DVDs (or shoot your own video at the dog park) and play it in your TV or computer monitor. You could also find a doggie webcam and leave your computer one while you are gone.

If you have any tried and true methods to keep your own pooch occupied, please share in the comments!

Photo Credit: Vaughn Hannon (top) and Silly Eagle Books

Dealing with Dominance

What does “dominance” mean?

In order to understand why your dog is acting “dominant,” it’s important to know some things about canine social systems. Animals who live in social groups, including domestic dogs and wolves, establish a social structure called a dominance hierarchy within their group. This hierarchy serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote cooperation among group members.

A position within the dominance hierarchy is established by each member of the group, based on the outcomes of interactions between themselves and the other pack members. The more dominant animals can control access to valued items such as food, den sites and mates. For domestic dogs, valued items might be food, toys, sleeping or resting places, as well as attention from their owner. In order for your home to be a safe and happy place for pets and people, it’s best that the humans in the household assume the highest positions in the dominance hierarchy.

Most dogs assume a neutral or submissive role toward people, but some dogs will challenge their owners for dominance. A dominant dog may stare, bark, growl, snap or even bite when you give him a command or ask him to give up a toy, treat or resting place. Sometimes even hugging, petting or grooming can be interpreted as gestures of dominance and, therefore, provoke a growl or snap because of the similarity of these actions to behaviors that are displayed by dominant dogs. Nevertheless, a dominant dog may still be very affectionate and may even solicit petting and attention from you.

You may have a dominance issue with your dog if:

  • He resists obeying commands that he knows well.
  • He won’t move out of your way when required.
  • He nudges your hand, takes you’re arm in his mouth or insists on being petted or played with (in other words, ordering you to obey him).
  • He defends his food bowl, toys or other objects from you.
  • He growls or bares his teeth at you under any circumstances.
  • He won’t let anyone (you, the vet, the groomer) give him medication or handle him.
  • He gets up on furniture without permission and won’t get down.
  • He snaps at you.

What to do if you recognize signs of dominance in your dog:

If you recognize the beginning signs of dominance aggression in your dog, you should immediately consult an animal behavior specialist. No physical punishment should be used. Getting physical with a dominant dog may cause the dog to intensify his aggression, posing the risk of injury to you. With a dog that has shown signs of dominance aggression, you should always take precautions to ensure the safety of your family and others who may encounter your dog by:

Avoiding situations that elicit the aggressive behavior.

  • During the times your dog is acting aggressively, back off and use “happy talk” to relieve the tenseness of the situation.
  • Supervise, confine and/or restrict your dog’s activities as necessary, especially when children or other pets are present.
  • When you’re outdoors with your dog, use a “Gentle Leader” or muzzle.


Canine Rivalry

What is Canine Rivalry?

Canine rivalry refers to repeated conflicts between dogs living in the same household. Animals that live in social groups establish a social structure within that group. This social structure is hierarchical and dogs determine their place in the hierarchy through control of and access to various resources, such as food, toys and attention from people. A stable hierarchy in which each individual knows and accepts his rank provides dogs with a sense of comfort and belonging. Conflicts arise between household dogs when there is instability in the social structure; that is, when the ranking of each dog is not clear or is in contention. Dogs may warn each other initially by snarling, growling or snapping, but not causing injury. However, the conflict may sometimes intensify into prolonged bouts of dangerous fighting, which may result in one or both dogs being injured.

Getting Professional Help

Ongoing canine rivalry is potentially dangerous. Dogs or human family members could be severely injured as a result of fighting. Because resolving rivalry problems requires managing the dogs’ somewhat complex social behaviors, it’s often necessary for owners to obtain assistance from a professional animal behaviorist. Certified animal behaviorists are trained to observe, interpret and modify animal behavior.

Why Conflict Occurs

Conflicts between household dogs develop for a wide variety of reasons.

  • A new animal has been introduced to the household.
  • A resident animal has died or no longer lives in the house.
  • A resident animal is re-introduced after an absence.
  • A young dog reaches social maturity, which is usually between 10 months and 2 years of age, and challenges the established higher-ranking dog.

A high-ranking dog ages or becomes ill and cannot maintain his higher status. Understanding Status Seeking Behavior and Social Structure. The dogs’ positions in the hierarchy are determined by the outcome of their interactions. The results of this complex and dynamic process will depend on the dogs themselves, without regard to your preferences. Any attempt on your part to interfere may result in increased conflict.
How dominance is established: Dogs usually determine their social ranking through a series of behaviors, which include body postures and vocalizations that don’t result in injury. Examples of these behaviors are one dog “standing over” another by placing his paws or neck on the shoulders of the other, mounting, lip licking or rolling over onto the back. Some dogs may take toys away from other dogs, insist on being petted first or exercise control over other resources. However, because of past experiences, inadequate socialization or genetic tendencies, some dogs may escalate these displays into aggression with very little warning.

The Social Structure: Do not attempt to influence or define the dogs’ rankings by treating them equally or by preventing a higher-ranking dog from asserting his position over another dog. The social hierarchy of the dogs is dynamic and complex, so even attempts to “support the dominant dog” may be counter productive. The dogs should be allowed to determine control of resources, such as toys and favorite sleeping places, amongst themselves. As much as possible, refrain from interfering in the dogs’ interactions with each other. But most importantly, establish yourself at the top of the hierarchy. Practicing “Nothing in Life is Free” is an easy and non-confrontational way to establish leadership by taking ultimate control of all resources the dogs find valuable. If your position as leader is clear, it will help the dogs sort out their lower places in the social structure more peacefully.

Breaking up a fight: If you need to break up a fight, do so by squirting the dogs with water or making a loud noise to try and interrupt them. Never attempt to break up a dog fight by grabbing the dogs by their collars or getting any part of yourself in between them. Touching dogs while they are fighting can result in what is called “redirected aggression,” where a dog may bite you because he thinks you are part of the conflict. If you’ve had a dog fight, please call our dog behavior helpline or contact your veterinarian for a referral to a professional animal behaviorist.

What You Can Do To Help

  • If the dogs involved are intact males or females, spay or neuter both dogs.
  • Make sure that all of the humans in your household are at the top of the hierarchy by practicing “Nothing in Life is Free.”
  • Establish fair rules and enforce them consistently. This helps all the dogs feel more secure and also reinforces your role as leader.
  • With the help of a professional animal behaviorist, elicit and reinforce non-aggressive behaviors using counter-conditioning and desensitization techniques. These procedures must be designed and tailored to specifically meet the needs of each individual case and require professional in-home help.
  • Punishment will not resolve the issue and can actually make it worse.

You should be aware that if you respond to this type of problem inappropriately, you run the risk of intensifying the problem and potentially causing injury to yourself and/or your dogs.

Photo Credit: Uberphot

Nothing in Life is Free

Does your dog: Get on the furniture and refuse to get off? Nudge your hand, insisting on being petted or played with? Refuse to come when called? Defend its food bowl or toys from you? “Nothing in life is free” can help. “Nothing in life is free” is not a magic pill that will solve a specific behavior problem; rather it’s a way of living with your dog that will help it behave better because it trusts and accepts you as its leader and is confident knowing its place in your family.

How To Practice “Nothing In Life Is Free”

Using positive reinforcement methods, teach your dog a few commands and/or tricks. “Sit,” “Down” and “Stay” are useful commands and “Shake” “Speak” and “Rollover” are fun tricks to teach your dog.
Once your dog knows a few commands, you can begin to practice “nothing in life is free.” Before you give your dog anything (food, a treat, a walk, a pat on the head) it must first perform one of the commands it has learned.

For example, You Your Dog

  • Put your dog’s leash on to go for a walk Must sit until you’ve put the leash on
  • Feed your dog Must lie down and stay until you’ve put the bowl down
  • Play a game of fetch after work Must sit and shake hands each time you throw the toy
  • Rub your dog’s belly while watching TV Must lie down and rollover before being petted
  • Once you’ve given the command, don’t give your dog what it wants until it does what you want. If it refuses to perform the command, walk away, come back a few minutes later and start again. If your dog refuses to obey the command, be patient and remember that eventually it will have to obey your command in order to get what it wants.
  • Make sure your dog knows the command well and understands what you want before you begin practicing “nothing in life is free.”

The Benefits of This Technique

Most dogs assume a neutral or submissive role toward people, but some dogs will challenge their owners for dominance. Requiring a dominant dog to work for everything it wants is a safe and non-confrontational way to establish control.

Dogs who may never display aggressive behavior such as growling, snarling, or snapping, may still manage to manipulate you. These dogs may display affectionate, though “pushy” behavior, such as nudging your hand to be petted or “worming” its way on to the furniture in order to be close to you. This technique gently reminds the “pushy” dog that it must abide by your rules. Obeying commands helps build a fearful dog’s confidence; having a strong leader and knowing its place in the hierarchy helps to make the submissive dog feel more secure.

Why This Technique Works

Animals that live in groups, like dogs, establish a social structure within the group called a dominance hierarchy. This dominance hierarchy serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote cooperation among pack members. In order for your home to be a safe and happy place for pets and people, it’s best that the humans in the household assume the highest positions in the dominance hierarchy. Practicing “nothing in life is free” effectively and gently communicates to your dog that its position in the hierarchy is subordinate to yours. From your dog’s point of view, children also have a place in this hierarchy. Because children are small and can get down on the dog’s level to play, dogs often consider them to be playmates, rather than superiors. With the supervision of an adult, it’s a good idea to encourage children in the household (aged eight and over) to also practice “nothing in life is free” with your dog.

Photo Credit: tudor