Please! Help Me! My Dog is Acting Like...a Dog!
"My dog digs in the yard, how do I make him stop?"
"My dog barks too much. How can I stop the barking?"
"My dog chases cats and squirrels, how do I stop the chasing?"
"My dog chews on the furniture. How can I get him to stop?"
"As soon as I take off the leash, my dog runs away as far and as fast as he possible can. How can I get him to stop?"
"My dog destroys and destuffs her bed, my pillows, and any stuffed toys we give her. How can I stop the behavior?"
These questions and others like them are ones I often hear in my practice. What do all of these scenarios have in common? Dog owners are frustrated with their dogs for, well...just being dogs.
Here are a few of the things dogs like to do:
- Eat poop
- Roll in yucky stuff
- Dig holes in the dirt
- Chase prey
- Run, run, run, run, run
- Sniff things
- Chew on things
- Dissect things
If we took ALL of these behaviors away from our dogs, would they even be dogs anymore? If we hate allowing our dogs to engage in the activities that make them dogs, why do we bring them into our families?
There are a few things you can do to deal with your dog's natural drives in a way that will reduce your own frustration and his as well.
1. Provide legal opportunities:
- Does your dog like to dig? Consider providing him with a sandbox or digging pit somewhere in your yard. You can hide toys or treats in the sandbox or digging pit to make it more interesting for your dog. Encourage him profusely when he digs in the appropriate area through capturing the behavior with a clicker and reinforcing or combining verbal praise with food rewards your dog likes. If your dog begins digging in an unwanted area, calmly interrupt, redirect him to the digging pit, and reinforce digging in the designated area.
- Most dogs love to run. For dogs that are rarely provided with the opportunity, it is natural to take off immediately whenever an opportunity presents itself (an open gate or door, a dropped leash or being off leash) and run as far and as fast as they can. This is a reflection of deprivation - if the dog were provided with more opportunities to run, he would stop viewing every opportunity to run as his last. Lure coursing is a great way to provide dogs with legal outlets for prey drive while providing the opportunity to run. Long lines and fences are ways to manage for safety while providing legal outlets for your dog's need to run.
- Does your dog like to chew everything he can get his mouth on? Stock up on chew toys - bully sticks, stuffed Kongs, pressed rawhide, marrow bones, whatever your dog likes. When you are unable to supervise your dog, manage by putting him in a crate and picking up favorite chewables. When your dog chews an undesirable object, redirect him to an appropriate chew toy.
- Does your dog dissect? You can create legal outlets for dissection easily and inexpensively. Stuff a KONG with your dog's favorite goodies. Take long strips of rags and wrap the rags around the KONG, tying pieces together in knots, until the KONG is encased in fabric. Let your dog dissect away! For dogs that are really good at this, some owners like to place the knotted KONG in boxes which are then taped shut for an even bigger challenge. Make sure you supervise your dog carefully. This game should be discontinued for dogs that attempt to eat the rope and/or the cardboard.
- High prey drive? Healthy outlets for prey drive can include controlled tug games, fetch games, lure coursing, and even legal opportunities to chase squirrels.
- Is your dog's nose constantly glued to the ground, each tree and hydrant on your walk, or shoved down a woodchuck's hole? Tracking, air scent training, and canine nosework are all healthy outlets for sniffy pooches!
- Legal opportunities for jumping - teach your dog to jump up to touch a hand target!
- Does your dog like barking? Put it on cue!
WHY I LIKE LEGAL OUTLETS: The more opportunities we can give our dogs to be dogs, the happier they are. Happy dogs have happy owners. Additionally, all of these opportunities are extremely powerful reinforcers for desirable behaviors through use of the Premack Principle.
2. Alternative, incompatible behavior - there are some dog behaviors that many dog parents never want their dogs to engage in. Not surprisingly, these behaviors often involve poop and dead things. People don't want their dogs to eat or roll in poop and carcasses. I get that, really I do.
- Think, "What do I want my dog to do instead?" and train for it. With careful training, dogs can even be taught to back away from poop or carcasses on sight, without even being cued by the handler. Cues like "leave it," can work well for this if they are well-taught, but are only useful if you can give the cue before the dog has engaged with the undesirable in question.
WHY I LIKE TRAINING AN ALTERNATIVE, INCOMPATIBLE BEHAVIOR: First, it encourages pet parents to think on solutions instead of problems - what do I want my dog to do instead? Second, modern training builds strong relationships between the dog and handler.
3. Manage, manage, manage: When you are unable to supervise your dog, manage the situation through using crates, gates, tethers, leashes, and fences.
Whenever possible, give your dog plenty of opportunities to be a dog. If you don't, he'll find ways to create those opportunities for himself, and not always in ways that you will appreciate!