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Behavioural problems

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Overcoming behavioural problems can be a slow process, requiring perseverence and patience but it is also very rewarding. Where a dog has developed a behavioural problem, the first thing to consider is why this change has occurred. Consider whether there have been any changes in the dog's environment recently, like moving home, a new baby joining the family or another pet being introduced. Also consider whether there have been any changes in the dog's routine, like being left alone for extended periods or not being walked as often. Finally, remember that medical problems (such as arthritis, dental disease or cystitis) can also lead to alterations in behaviour.

Aggression

This is one of the most serious behavioural problems in dogs and should be tackled in association with your vet or a qualified pet behaviourist. The first step is to determine what type of aggression you are dealing with:
  • Dominance aggression: this occurs where a dog has established itself as leader over a family member; any attempt by that family member to take control is then seen as a threat by the dog.
  • Fear aggression: this is seen where a dog is put in an unfamiliar situation, or a situation associated with a bad experience in the past. In the first instance, the dog is likely to try to flee from the situation but if this is not an option then aggressive behaviour may result.
  • Play aggression: this occurs when play becomes too rough. Games such as tug-of-war can sometimes encourage this kind of aggression. The dog must be made aware when play becomes too boisterous, for example by saying "Ouch!" loudly and then terminate any play activity that was taking place (if necessary, by leaving the room). Quickly the dog will learn that biting will end a play session.
  • Possessive aggression: most commonly seen where a dog is protective of its food. Practise taking the food away and replacing it with an even better treat, until the dog learns that having his/her food taken away often results in something even better.

These are not the only types of aggression that can arise. Always remember that a dog suffering from a painful medical condition is likely to be more irritable and have a lower aggression threshold. Such medical issues need to be resolved or managed in association with a vet before training will be successful.

Car sickness

In a significant number of cases car sickness is due to anxiety rather than motion sickess. A dog's first experience of being in the car is often being taken away from its mother and littermates and/or being taken to the vet surgery. Once a dog has been sick in the car this adds further to the anxiety, as the dog then associated the car with being sick.

The first step is therefore to break the bad association with cars. Start gradually, by letting the dog into the car without closing the doors or driving anywhere, then give lots of praise. You can gradually increase the amount of time he/she spends in the car, then try closing the doors (again, give lots of praise). You can even give your dog his/her dinner in the car, again removing any bad associations the car may have. Once your dog is used to being in the car, try starting the engine. Gradually increase the length of time you run the engine for, ensuring your dog is still at ease. Finally you can try going somewhere - start by just driving a few yards, then gradually increase the distance you travel. Finally, take your dog to exciting/fun places in the car, such as the park or your local woods, so car rides become associated with good things rather than bad.

Some dogs will continue to be sick in the car despite good training. This is probably due to motion sickness, which occurs when a dog cannot connect his/her feelings of imbalance or motion with what his/her eyes are seeing. Ensuring your dog can see out of a window may help but in the worst cases you should speak to your vet about whether anti-sickness medication may be necessary.

Fears and phobias

Lack of early exposure to a range of sights, sounds and smells can lead to the development of fears and phobias. This is why socialisation is the cornerstone to raising a well-balanced dog - see our 'Puppy training' article. That said, fears and phobias can also occur as a result of traumatic experiences (eg a fear of car journeys associated with being taken away from their mother and littermates).

Most dogs demonstrate fear in a mild way, perhaps panting and pacing, trembling or whining. Others can become extremely agitated, aggressive and destructive - these are experiencing a phobic response. Dogs suffering from phobias often require professional behavioural intervention.

In order to set up a training programme you need to be able to reproduce the cause of the fear. This is easy in cases such as fear of being in a car, or fear of a particular person, but it is more challenging if your dog is afraid of, for example, storms or fireworks (though there are audio recordings available which may aid training). Regardless of whether you are dealing with fear of a sound, a person or a place, the principles are the same. Start by exposing your pet to very low levels of the stimulus and reward him/her for sitting quietly and calmly. If the dog exhibits no fear, gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus. All the time, reward appropriate behaviour (calm, quiet behaviour). It is extremely important that you increase the intensity of the stimulus only very slowly. If your pet starts to show fear then you are progressing too quickly.

If a recording is used (eg of fireworks), start with the sound right down and gradually increase the volume level, all the time rewarding non-fearful behaviour. If your dog is fearful of a cage or a particular room, reward him/her for lying in the doorway first, then proceed a step or two into the room or cage to receive the reward at each subsequent training session. For dogs that are scared of the vet surgery begin by taking the dog to the car park and doing some exercise for rewards, then progress to the waiting room and get a staff member to reward your dog. Attend the surgery for non-threatening events such as weight checks, again making sure your dog is suitably rewarded.
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Dacre House Veterinary Clinic
91 Powder Mill Lane
Tunbridge Wells
Kent
TN4 9ED
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