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Norwich Bulletin - 3/20/2005

Why Dogs Do What They Do

While some dogs problems stem from anxiety or aggression and need some serious help, most of the time our dogs are just being dogs. But it is still a problem if we have a dog who likes to continuously bark or chew every piece of furniture in our home, or tends to nip and bite when it doesn't want to do what it is being asked to do. And so these behavior problems need to be addressed and, hopefully, modified.

Dogs talk and what we regard as a problem, is simply dog talk. Whether your pet is trying to communicate something to you, alert you to as to something they perceive as danger or if they are simply bored or stressed - excessive barking can be a problem, especially in an urban setting. Another point to remember is that dogs have been bred for centuries to bark while performing whatever it is that they were actually bred to do. And now, all of a sudden, we have to convince our dogs that they should not and do not want to bark!

What happens is during the course of a normal day in the life of a dog, many people pass by their yard. The mailman, the jogger, other dogs and cats - and all of these visitors bring about a warning or invitational bark. What usually happens is that whatever was the cause of the initial barking will go away and the dog assumes that it is because he barked at them.

So this becomes habit as the dog believes he has succeeded in "doing his job" and keeping his yard and his people safe. In effect, he has been handsomely rewarded for barking. Barking is then reinforced and eventually becomes problematic. And so we need to find a way to reward silence. When your dog barks to come in, do not yell at him, but simply ignore him. The moment he stops barking for even a minute, let him in and reward him with a treat. It doesn't take a dog too long to learn that quiet might be a better choice.

Do not reinforce barking by yelling at the dog (this essentially puts you in the barking position) or by doing whatever it is he wants you to do just so he will stop barking. You will need to be patient and do some training here. Do not leave your dog outside when you are not home. You can redirect a barking dog to something else more rewarding such as playing fetch or working on some simple commands. The hardest and most important thing for you to do is to ignore the barking.

I know there are bark collars and I actually used one for about four years until my dog learned to change the pitch of her bark so that she did not get a shock when she barks. So the bark collar sits on a shelf now and we are working on the above suggestions. However, I did have four years of silence so that could be a consideration with larger dogs.

Then there is the chewing problem. People think dogs only chew while they are teething and it is about six months. Unfortunately that is not always true - it actually can take some breeds a few years to totally mature and the permanent teeth continue to settle into the jaw until the age of maturity comes to pass.

Puppies and young dogs tend to use their mouths to explore their environment (as human babies do) and they end up putting everything and anything in their mouths. Dogs also chew from boredom and lack of exercise. If a dog has to figure out how to make its own fun during a long ten hour day, chewing will probably be one of the days high points.

So you need to be innovative and leave around all kinds of chew toys, even hiding them around the house. Make sure your dog has plenty of exercise and if you can't get home during the day, perhaps either hiring a local teenager to come in once a day or sending your dog to doggie daycare a few times a week might be the answer. And if you are only gone a few hours a day, by all means crate your dog (with a nice big chew toy).

There are lots of other behaviors that annoy us - the escape artist or the digger - but the most serious and necessary behavior to address is biting. Dogs may bite out of fear, to guard what they few as theirs, because they are aggressive or because they have learned that they get their way if they intimidate their owners. The dog has to learn that he does not own the toys, dog bowls, kids or furniture.

Of course puppies mouth and this is not biting - this should be stopped immediately when your puppy starts to chew on your fingers. But a dog who shows signs of being a biter should go to training. The dog needs socialization and to learn that people are good sources of attention and treats. And while no one likes to admit that their dog may have an aggressive streak, it can be worked out if people are willing to begin training as soon as they have any indication at all of the behavior.

Being a cat person it is really hard for me to think like a dog (and dogs and cats are like the Mars and Venus thing) so I seek out the dog professionals. But no matter how you face the challenges of inappropriate dog behavior, just remember - your dog is behaving as a dog - and for no other reason than, well - it is a dog!

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