Many Psych Choices clients are familiar with Max, the little dog who spends all day with therapist Emily Kahn-Freedman. Although Max is loving and easygoing most of the time, he’s had his behavior problems. Our client Chris S. is an experienced dog owner who offers the following advice:
Treating Problem Behaviors in Your Dog
by Chris S.
I’ve bonded with and cared for my first dog, Bowser, for the past three and a half years. A lively mutt, he has proven to be an infectiously goofy character – like when he dragged a broken tree branch that was about three times his size into the house as a puppy. It was an odd and comical sight that evoked a laugh from everyone in the room. Like many dogs, though, Bowser has exhibited some dominant and territorial behaviors since we adopted him which suddenly escalated about three months ago. When he began “guarding” places in the house, my sister’s dog, Scarlet, couldn’t even walk into the same room as Bowser without him staring her down, and if she happened to move too close he would forcibly bark at her, sending her on her way. Upon walking him, he often barked threateningly at other dogs he apparently perceived them to be invading his “territory”. These kinds of behaviors are natural in the dog-world, although in such cases they are obviously unwanted. I’d like to impart some of the knowledge that I’ve acquired from both trial-and-error learning as well as educating myself on dog psychology and behavior for the past several years. Although this certainly requires hands-on practice and commitment, here is a general guideline.
1. First, I’d like you to pay no mind to your dog; rather, pay attention to yourself. If you feel stressed, tense, angry or virtually anything other than calmness, your efforts will most likely be in vain. Dogs listen to owners who project calm-assertiveness. To put this in perspective, leaders in any field who are frantic, worried or uptight all the time are going to receive a similar reaction from their subordinates. Likewise, your dog needs you to be as level-headed as possible. So take a few deep breathes, psyche yourself up and whatever else you can do to create a sense of positivity and motivation.
2. I couldn’t agree more with the saying “A tired dog is a happy dog”. Dogs need to walk with their “pack” and will become frustrated when they sit inside or roam in the yard all day, which tends to translate into misbehaviors of which we sometimes blame them. I began regularly jogging with Bowser a few weeks after his sudden shift in behavior and the effects I’ve seen have been undoubtedly positive. The very first time I jogged with him was only for about fifteen seconds but by the time we were finished he was visibly more relaxed and attentive to me – just fifteen seconds produced this response from him. By the end of the walk he laid down in the house, finally able to sleep peacefully.
3. Many people associate the word “Discipline” with a negative experience, however, disciplining your dog calmly and assertively will only benefit him. You should use as little force as necessary as this should be exceedingly more psychological than physical. Dogs are extremely sensitive to your emotional states; therefore, if you yell at him while he barks at the mail-man, chances are this will only intensify his behavior. If you choose to use vocal corrections, use any word or sound that will make you feel empowered. To illustrate this, if you were to say “no” but are actually feeling insecure or frustrated, he isn’t going to take you seriously. And if you were to pick any word out of a hat and use it with certainty and meaning, your chances of commanding his attention will have skyrocketed.
4. Dogs are obviously an entirely different species, so while it is perfectly fine to love them as we would another person it’s unwise to treat them as such when we’d like to teach them. Rewarding him is going to reinforce the way he feels at any given moment, so it’s optimal to express your love when he’s calm and attentive to you.
It’s a very satisfying feeling knowing you’ve helped your dog work through an obstacle so he or she can feel happier. Using this general formula has done wonders with helping Bowser as his territoriality is on the decline and my sister’s dog, Scarlet, feels much more comfortable in the house. We no longer feel the need to keep a constant vigil over him and our overall pet-related stress has greatly diminished.
Learning is mutual when owning a dog, and although your furry friend will teach you many invaluable lessons, I hope these basic instructions will aid you in accomplishing your goal and ultimately fulfilling your pet’s needs as well.