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Causes of Abnormal Behavior in Dogs

Knowing your dog's needs and establishing routines can help ensure that abnormal dog behaviors are only occasional deviations and don't become bad habits.

Melvin Peña  |  Apr 26th 2016


It can be difficult, if not impossible, to strictly define what makes dog behavior abnormal or problematic. Why? While we sometimes think about dogs as a monolithic species, with equivalent needs and expressions of them, these are only ever rough comparisons. Over the course of a lifetime, puppies within a single litter may have radically distinct life experiences, which can lead one to be a well-adjusted dog and another to be a troublemaker. That’s to say nothing of the different requirements, in terms of diet or exercise, that exist between, say, a Papillon and an Australian Cattle Dog.

We also have to take into account environmental factors and what individual dog owners consider acceptable given the context of where they live. A dog owner who has lived with a particular dog for a year or longer has a good idea of what they consider “normal” behavior, so abnormal activities or tendencies stand out all the more starkly by contrast. On the other hand, it’s extremely common for people who adopt a dog to worry that any mischief their dog gets into either reflects badly on them as pet parents or that they’ve brought an incorrigible creature into their homes.

When “good” dogs go “bad”

Here, we’re going to focus primarily on scenarios in which “good” dogs go “bad.” Those terms are in quotation marks simply to underscore that they can be considered “abnormal” since they are atypical of how a dog usually acts. Some of these dog behaviors have less to do with the dog and more to do with the attention the dog is given; others may be remedied, or at least lessened in intensity by special equipment or subtle changes in an owner’s approach to the dog. The problems we’ll survey include:

  • Aggressive behavior in dogs
  • Destructive tendencies
  • Dogs eating non-food items
  • Mounting behavior
causes of abnormal dog behavior

Dog aggression is an abnormal behavior pattern for many. (Photo by Taro the Shiba Inu on Flickr)

Unusual dog aggression

There is no such thing as a naturally violent or aggressive dog. When I first adopted my Bluetick Coonhound mix at around 6 months of age, I did everything just as I had with my previous dog. Naively, I assumed that after nine years with the one, the new dog would simply slot into the routine I’d established with the one who had passed away.

At the end of the long hike I was accustomed to before, my puppy would start biting at my ankles, elbows, and knees. She’s an active and energetic dog, but not an attacker.

We started going for shorter and more frequent walks. Over the course of the next several weeks, the random biting gradually ceased. Dog owners who have usually placid and easygoing dogs who suddenly or inexplicably develops habits of aggression should carefully examine how they act around and toward their dogs. I needed to manage my expectations and allow our routine to develop organically over time. The more time owners spend with their dogs, the more predictable their actions and behaviors become, and the easier we can adjust to them when they act out.

Destructive behaviors

Similar themes can be raised around the topic of destructive behaviors. These can range from chewing or urinating on furniture or other innocuous household items to digging holes in the yard. In many cases, when a typically calm and well-behaved dog begins developing a penchant for aggression against inanimate objects, play, and not punishment, should be the first solution a dog owner attempts.

These days, when my dog bites at me or digs a huge hole in the yard, it tends to be when work or other activities have caused me to skip our walks for a couple of days consecutively. In many instances, a dog who is acting out in ways that could be interpreted as aggressive — be it roughhousing, barking, biting, or digging — is doing so because the dog’s own needs for companionship or exercise are not being met consistently. Abnormal dog behaviors can, in many cases, be linked to their owners’ attentiveness, or lack thereof. Dogs don’t act out to get revenge, but because they’re forced to entertain themselves.

Dogs eating weird, non-food items

Dogs are opportunistic omnivores, and while dog owners know instinctively that dog food is exactly that, dogs make no such fine distinctions. Here at Dogster, we cover this sort of thing all the time: Is your dog eating poop? Does your dog eat grass? Surely, there’s something wrong if a dog starts eating tampons! Not so fast. Given sufficient time and opportunity, anything within a dog’s reach can become foods dogs can’t or shouldn’t eat.

causes of abnormal dog behavior

People consider it abnormal when a neutered dog humps. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

None of the items mentioned above could reasonably be called food, yet people see their dogs eating these and many other, even more hazardous things. Fastidious kitchen, pantry, and bathroom management can prevent a dog from ingesting human foods, non-food items, as well as potentially lethal objects. Be vigilant. Make sure to keep pantries tightly sealed and toxic foods such as grapes or macadamia nuts in places where a dog cannot obtain them.

All human medications should be stored in rooms that are inaccessible to dogs at all times. By no means should you actively offer pain relievers, antacids, or any other over-the-counter medicines without explicit instructions and directions from your dog’s veterinarian.

Neutered dogs continue humping

Some of these abnormal dog behaviors may give us pause or cause dog owners to panic, but they are also, to some extent, not that unusual. Even the best trained dogs can lose their cool, break things without intending to, and ingest things that are not good for them. One behavioral problem that has puzzled people since dog spaying and neutering became common veterinary practice is mounting, or when dogs who have been fixed continue humping everything in sight.

We falsely assume that the humping activity is causally and necessarily associated with the procreative instinct. At the same time, we can only believe the evidence of our eyes when our dogs engage in illicit activities with pillows and stuffed animals. We have also seen them go to town on legs — human or table — or really object ready to hand. More alarming to the androcentric among us is when female dogs enact mounting behaviors! Yes, female dogs hump, too, and they hump the same bizarre range of objects, home furnishings, and dogs as males!

causes of abnormal dog behavior

Boredom, stress, or lack of exercise can yield a destructive dog. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Why do they do this? It is perfectly normal behavior in puppies as young as six weeks. Should it recur into adulthood, it can be discouraged through distraction and positive training methods. Reasons behind it include both boredom and pleasure. It’s no secret that some dogs, both male and female, hump because the sensation of genital stimulation is enjoyable.

What abnormal behaviors do your dogs engage in?

There are certain consistent, repetitive behaviors that may be so regularly expressed or performed that they become expected rather than particularly abnormal. Behavioral tics of this nature are referred to as “stereotypies,” which might also be called coping mechanisms. These are more commonly found in dogs who have suffered long-term abuse or neglect. Rescue dogs, in particular, who have a history of maltreatment require not only as much love and attention as so-called “normal” dogs but also more patience from their owners.

Dogs like this may have been forced to reproduce regularly in puppy mills, left chained to a post in a yard, or subjected to mutilation or violence in the realms of dog fighting or racing, among many other horrifying conditions. Dogs who fit any of these categories may need months, if not years, of careful training and relentlessly positive management, along with adjusted expectations on the part of their owners or foster families, in order to effect any substantive measure of rehabilitation.