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Understanding dog behaviour by a dog behaviourist

Understanding dog behaviour, by a dog behaviourist

Most of us have struggled at times with the behaviour of our dogs, especially when they were puppies! At times, when we’re sitting on our lounge floor amidst shredded furniture, we feel like giving up.

But don’t! Always remember the dog you own can be the dog you always wanted!

In this guide to understanding dog behaviour, I’ve put together many of the common difficult behaviours displayed by our dogs, along with an insight into the psychology behind them. For this I enlisted Lin, a dog behaviourist and trainer from Melbourne, to help you figure out what’s really going on!

Canine psychology 101 – understanding dog behaviour

If you’re only interested in understanding a specific dog behaviour then skip to the next section where we unwrap individual dog behaviours. Otherwise let’s start at the top – what is canine psychology, how does it work, and how does it compare to training classes?

Lin has many years experience as a dog behaviourist and canine psychologist, and the following paragraphs are in her own words, and will give you a perfect insight into whether you need a dog behaviourist or a dog trainer to get your dog on the right track!

Lin clearly loves dogs, saying she always has and always will. They have been a major part of her life since early childhood, and her belief is if she can successfully help others to overcome the problems that make life less than perfect for both themselves and their dogs then this can be the most rewarding aspect of her life and career as a canine psychologist, dog behaviourist, and trainer.

What is canine psychology?

Canine psychology, as with human psychology, is primarily related to the study of the mind.

In fact early experiments carried out by notables in the field such as Freud and Pavlov were almost exclusively carried out on animals as it was believed the thought processes of animal and man did not differ significantly except in their level of complexity.

The key difference between human psychology and dog psychology is a dog can’t lie down on the couch and tell you how they’re feeling.

Therefore to understand what a dog is thinking we must rely on analysis of its behaviour in relation to a given stimulus or certain environment, and how it interacts with those around it both human and animal.

Understanding dog behaviour, by a dog behaviourist
Understanding dog behaviour

Dogs of course are capable of communication in a number of ways.

They communicate by four groups of vocalisation – growls, barks, whimpers and howls. Within each of these groups the frequency, pitch and volume varies to convey different messages.

We all understand the meaning of a growl, used primarily to threaten or to warn, however a bark can convey anything from alerting other pack members to the approach of a stranger to saying I’ve found something interesting why don’t you all come and see!

Dogs also communicate with body language, using either the whole body, or ears, eyes, tail or mouth or indeed a combination of these things to convey specific meanings.

When you consider this, it’s easy to understand why so many people are against the docking of tails and the cropping of ears, as we are in effect denying the dog a frequently used method of communication.

Dogs also use olfactory communication, which means they can communicate using smell. A dog’s sense of smell is far better than ours, and the reason your dog is constantly sniffing around. Dogs use scent to pick up messages left by other dogs, which might say for example, this is my territory.

It’s extremely important to understand how a dog learns the behaviours it manifests in order to analyse how problem behaviours begin.

One of the most common ways dogs learn is by something called classical conditioning, which is learning by association. This was demonstrated by the well-known experiments undertaken by Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s.

Whilst undertaking research into the digestive system, Pavlov noticed dogs would often salivate before they actually saw food under a given set of circumstances. For example when you take out their food bowl.

Pavlov experimented on the use of a stimulus – in this case a bell when the dog was given food. Very quickly the dog would salivate on hearing the sound of the bell even when food wasn’t present.

Classical conditioning is however more complex than it first appears in that if the bell were to be continually rung without the food then the dogs would eventually stop displaying the conditioned response. This is a valuable lesson to remember when training!

Another way a dog learns is by operant conditioning, which basically means behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences. For example, the use of food in training as a reward would be classed as operant conditioning by way of positive reinforcement.

What it is extremely important to remember in operant conditioning is the frequency of the reinforcement can be pivotal.

If you always reward behaviour, i.e. when training the dog to sit you always give it a titbit when it sits successfully the dog will very soon stop sitting on command.

What actually works best for your dog is a variable reinforcement. Sometimes give your dog a treat, and sometimes don’t.

You only have to watch someone playing a one armed bandit to understand how well this approach works from a psychological viewpoint in humans as well as animals!

Many dog owners assume the thought processes of our dogs are exactly the same as their own, and many of the difficulties encountered by owners arise from this mistaken belief.

Dogs in fact are capable of many of the thought processes us humans have, but on a much more basic level.

Dogs don’t have a sense of right or wrong in terms of moral codes or ethics.

Because of this, they have no sense of guilt. This concept is one of the most difficult for dog owners to understand, but it’s the main reason they don’t respond well to punishment.

While most behaviours are learned it’s important to remember some behaviours are inherited as part of your dog’s genetic makeup.

For example, the need to scavenge even though your dog is perfectly well fed. Although some of these behaviours are less than desirable, many inherent traits can be used to our advantage in dealing with problems.

Hierarchical pack structure is one such example – which is why it’s important for them to believe you’re the leader of the pack, and not them.

All dogs perceive themselves, their owners, and any other animals within the household as part of the same pack.

Your dog’s perceived position in the pack causes them to act the way they do toward you and others in the household.

Many inappropriate behaviours complained of by owners stem from their dog’s perception he is in fact the pack leader. This can be eradicated simply by restructuring the pack in the eyes of the dog.

This insight into canine psychology covers the basics, but has hopefully given you a taster of what a dog behaviourist would deal with on a day-to-day basis.

The world of the dog psychologist is very different from say that of a dog trainer. Dog trainers work mostly in a class situation with multiple dogs teaching owners how to control normal behaviour.

The job of a dog behaviourist or canine psychologist is to analyse in depth the behaviour of an individual dog and create a program of behaviour modification, which the owner then applies.

Common dog behaviours – Explained!

Below are some of the most common questions asked about dog behaviours. These questions are addressed by dog behaviourists on a day to day basis, so if in doubt it’s worth speaking to one.

Why does my dog bark at the doorbell?

There are a couple reasons why your dog might bark at the doorbell.

Maybe they’re excited to see someone coming to visit, or maybe they’re alerted by the sound of the doorbell and want to let you know that someone is there.

Some dogs bark at the doorbell because they’re feeling anxious or protective – they might think someone is an intruder or threat to your home or the pack. This is a behaviour worth addressing.

Try to observe your dog’s body language and see if you can figure out why they’re doing it.

Do they seem happy or excited? If so it’s probably no big deal – but if they seem worried or aggressive, you might want to talk to a dog behaviourist about why they’re reacting this way.

Why does my dog lunge at other dogs or people?

Dogs lunge for many reasons including excitement, fear, frustration, or aggression.

In most cases, a lunging dog is trying to communicate something to the person or dog he’s lunging at.

For example, a dog who’s excited might be trying to get the other dog or person to play with them. This behaviour can be addressed with training or positive reinforcement.

On the other hand, a fearful or nervous dog might be trying to scare away the thing he’s afraid of. Or an aggressive dog might be trying to intimidate the other dog or person into submission.

Figuring out why may be as simple as reading their body language – do they seem happy when they display this behaviour, such as a wagging tail or playful leap, or does it seem more fearful or aggressive?

A dog behaviourist can help you understand what your dog is trying to say, and help you teach your dog appropriate ways to express himself.

Why does my dog constantly seek attention?

Dogs are social creatures that thrive on attention and interaction, but at times it can get it bit much and it’s important to consider why.

A dog might start barking or whining, or become excessively playful or destructive when you’re around.

It might be as simple as wanting to spend more time with their favourite human, or perhaps they’re bored – have they had enough exercise and interaction?

A dog may become more persistent seeking your attention at specific times of the day, such as when it’s time for their walk or they’ve become hungry.

Sometimes there’s an underlying anxiety or discomfort. In our world of convenience dog foods it is far too common to have belly ache from what they’ve been fed, and they may be trying to communicate this discomfort to you because they don’t understand the reason why.

While it can be frustrating to have a dog that seems to be demanding constant attention, it’s important to remember they’re simply acting on their natural instincts.

By providing plenty of love and attention, we can help our dogs to feel secure and fulfilled, preventing them from needing to seek out attention in unwanted ways.

Why does my dog jump on visitors (or me)?

It could be your dog’s excited, wants to say hello, or demand attention. Often this can be addressed in the puppy phase by ignoring this behaviour until they realise it doesn’t get the desired attention.

Instead reward them when they don’t jump by making a fuss of them or giving them a treat.

If it’s not a usual behaviour for your dog, it could be underlying stress or they have become afraid. They may jump on people they see as a threat, or in an attempt to show dominance.

If your dog’s jumping on people for these reasons then ignoring them may not address the underlying behaviour.

Why does my dog ignore recalls?

If you are training your dog to come when you call then there’s a few key points you need to consider:

Firstly, it’s important to make sure that you’re using the cue correctly. The recall should always mean “come here right now,” so if you use it for other purposes (like asking your dog to come off the couch), your dog is likely to get confused.

Secondly, you need to make sure that the recall is consistently rewarding. If coming to you only sometimes results in a treat or a game of fetch, your dog is likely to be less motivated to respond.

Like with any training, recall takes patience and practice.

However, another possibility is your dog is fearful or anxious and recalls are associated with negative experiences (e.g., being scolded).

In these cases, the dog may need some behavior modification training to help them feel more comfortable with coming when called.

A good example of how this can happen is when your dog fails to come, and when they eventually do you tell them off for their previous behaviour. They don’t understand they’re being told off for not coming previously, and believe they’re being punished for eventually coming back.

I see this often in the dog park, but it’s the wrong approach and can cause deep set behavioural problems. This behaviour can’t be addressed with training – it simply doesn’t work.

Why is my dog anxious/aggressive when visiting the vet?

It’s possible your dog has had a negative experience at the vet in the past, or perhaps he perceives the vet clinic as a place of danger. Perhaps they suffered some discomfort or separation anxiety during a previous visit, and it’s surprising how little they forget.

Some dogs simply become anxious when they’re away from their family or in an unfamiliar environment.

A good way of avoiding anxiety at the vets is to enroll them in a puppy socialisation class when they’re around 12 weeks old and have had their vaccinations. Most vets run these courses regularly as it helps your puppy socialise, and also see the veterinary practice as a happy and positive environment.

If your dog’s anxiety is severe enough that it’s causing them to exhibit aggressive behaviour, it’s best to consult with a professional dog behaviourist. They can help you figure out what might be causing your dog’s anxiety and devise a plan to help him feel more comfortable at the vet clinic.

Why is my dog destructive?

If your dog is destructive, it’s important to understand that this behavior is likely stemming from some sort of underlying issue.

It could be anything from boredom or anxiety to fear or insecurity, particularly with younger dogs. Older dogs suffering tooth pain or underlying health issues may also become destructive due to a pain they’re unable to verbalise – always keep this in mind as a possible cause, and always consider what they’ve been eating and whether it can cause stomach upset.

As a dog behaviourist, I always recommend working with a professional to help you figure out what’s going on with your dog and how to best address the issue. But in the meantime, there are some things you can do to help make your dog more comfortable and less destructive:

First, provide plenty of mentally and physically stimulating activities for your dog. This can include everything from interactive toys and puzzles to walks, runs, and playdates.

Chew toys, or those hollow Kong balls filled with peanut butter, can keep your dog occupied and happy for hours. Raw meaty bones are another option, but should really be supervised so as not to cause a hazard.

Puppies can be very destructive due to teething, so giving them plenty of things to chew on can really save your furniture.

Secondly, provide plenty of exercise for your dog. A tired dog is a good dog, and if they’re getting enough physical and mental stimulation they’ll be less likely to resort to destructive behaviors.

Finally, don’t forget the power of positive reinforcement – if your dog starts chewing on an appropriate object like their toy, make sure to praise them enthusiastically.

With a little time and patience, you can help your four-legged friend break their destructive habits for good.

Just keep in mind any underlying anxiety or discomfort, and if the above fails to work then it’s worth considering why or getting a dog behaviourist to help you.

Why does my dog run upstairs or through doors ahead of me?

Dogs instinctively want to be in the lead when they’re out on a hunt, so it’s natural for them to want to be ahead of you, but it can also be about dominance.

Dogs are pack animals, and in the animal world the alpha (or dominant) member of the pack is in control.

If your dog sees himself as the alpha member of your pack, he may try to take charge by running ahead of you, and this is something you can address by changing your dog’s perspective on pack hierarchy (i.e. who’s boss). This is something a dog behaviourist can help you address by creating a plan, and this may vary from dog to dog.

Another possibility is that your dog is just excited and happy to be out walking with you, or they know they’re going to the dog park and they can’t wait to get there. This behaviour can often be addressed with standard training practices, such as using treats when they walk correctly beside you.

Why does my dog urinate in the house?

There are a few reasons why your dog may be toileting in the house, even if they are trained to go outside.

Medical problems can cause a change in toilet habits, so it’s always best to rule out any possible health issues first.

If your dog is healthy, there are a few behaviour-related reasons why they may be doing this.

One possibility is your dog feels anxious or stressed. This can be due to another animal being present, or simply because they don’t like the process of having to go through the door and outside. Some dogs, particularly older dogs, may choose to avoid going outside during winter months (particularly in Melbourne!).

In this case, you’ll need to provide some additional training and reassurance to help them feel more comfortable going outdoors.

Another possibility, for male dogs, is marking their territory. Standard training practices can help in this respect, which can be as simple as praising or treating them when they toilet outside.

A dog behaviourist can help you determine if there are underlying anxieties or reasons for stress which are preventing your dog from going outside.

Why is my dog too playful with children?

Dogs are social creatures who love to play. When they see children, they may just want to play or be friendly.

However, some dogs may become too excited and start jumping on children or nipping at them – you’ll often see this behaviour when puppies play with other dogs. With children this can be dangerous for both the dog and the child, so it’s important to teach them boundaries.

One way to do this is have the dog sit or lie down when children are around. If your dog jumps on a child, make sure you quickly give him a firm “no” and move him away from the child. With time and consistent training, your dog will learn that he needs to take it easy around kids.

However, some dog owners fail to read the signs when their dogs interact with children. Sometimes it may appear initially as “play”, but your dog may be driven by some anxiety or fear. If this is the case, the behaviour can quickly lead to an unwanted outcome.

I often find owners of rescue dogs fail to understand the signs, simply because they’re unaware of the previous situation the dog was in. Perhaps they were raised in a household with a young child who would play with the dog but at times act roughly or cause the dog pain.

If in doubt, get a dog behaviourist to assess your dog’s body language and figure out a plan of action.

Why does my dog bark at passers-by or other dogs?

The two main reasons for this behaviour are fear or to show dominance. Often the fear can be caused from being anxious or scared, and the barking is to scare them away. It’s a way of your dog protecting themselves, you, or their territory.

If the reason for the barking is to show dominance, it could hint at a belief your dog thinks they’re the pack leader instead of you.

In this situation a dog behaviourist would assess your dog and the family dynamic to point out possible areas of change. This would likely rectify other dominance-related behaviours displayed by your dog.

Why does my dog chase cars, joggers, cyclists etc?

Dogs are predator animals. It’s easy for us to forget that fact these days, but our dogs haven’t forgotten and it’s still very instinctual for them.

One of the reasons our dogs chase cars, joggers, and cyclists is for the thrill of the chase. It’s the same reason most dogs love chasing balls. Things which move really fast – to a prey-driven dog – are an irresistible challenge!

Another reason, and one which is easiest to rectify, is a desire to chase out of curiosity or excitement. We see this behaviour more in dogs who haven’t had enough stimulus or excitement from exercise, so simply more walks, runs, or playtime can prevent them chasing your postman.

Finding other activities to keep your dog occupied can also help, such as teaching them new tricks or varying their walks.

Obedience commands such as “sit”, “stay”, and “come” go a long way to rectifying this behaviour with training.

A dog behaviourist may adopt other methods to coincide with training and change your dog’s overall attitude towards these “targets”.

This could be done through desensitisation, such as systematically exposing them to low-level stimuli like car sounds or visuals until they no longer respond with fear or excitement.

As with all negative dog behaviours, positive reinforcement can also play a part, such as rewarding them for good behaviour around cars and fast-moving people.

Why does my dog have separation anxiety when home alone?

There can be a number of reasons why your dog becomes anxious when left alone.

Some dogs become anxious when separated from their guardians because they’ve learned that when they’re alone something bad can happen (i.e. the fear of someone breaking into the home without you to defend them).

Some dogs become anxious when exposed to loud noises, or distant barking from other neighbourhood dogs.

Other dogs may be more prone to separation anxiety due to genetics or early life experiences.

A dog behaviourist may address separation anxiety in a variety of ways. Firstly they would assess the severity of anxiety and work out a treatment plan accordingly.

Techniques such as desensitisation and counterconditioning may be used to help deal with your dog’s separation anxiety. These techniques aim to change the way your dog thinks about being home alone, and should prove the best way in making your dog feel more comfortable and safe

With desensitisation, your dog is slowly exposed to different aspects of being away from you, such as absence during mealtimes or giving them quiet time alone. This is done gradually so your dog can adjust to being alone without a fear you won’t return.

Dog counterconditioning is a process of training your dog to associate something they initially perceive as negative or frightening (like being home alone) with something positive or rewarding (like a treat). This can help your dog feel more confident and comfortable, and reduce their fear and anxiety.

Why does my dog steal food?

They may simply be hungry and desperate for something to eat. If your dog isn’t getting enough food, they’ll resort to stealing in order to survive.

Alternatively, your dog may be trying to do something called resource guarding.

This is when a dog tries to protect their food from others (including you) by hiding it or keeping it away from anyone else.

Some dogs may simply enjoy the thrill of stealing food, as if it’s a game – they know they’re not supposed to have it and so it’s extra exciting for them!

If you’re concerned about your dog’s stealing habits, the best thing to do is consult with a qualified dog behaviorist or psychologist who will use a number of methods (including training) to fix the problem.

A dog behaviourist would firstly try to determine why the dog is stealing food, such as from being hungry or trying to get attention. Even if you feed your dog a decent amount of dog food, it doesn’t mean it’s appealing to your dog (especially given what most dog foods are made of). Alternatively the behaviourist may determine your dog has underlying stress or anxiety.

Sometimes it’s possible for a dog to be stressed because of their environment, such as it’s too small for them to feel comfortable, or sometimes too much attention for bad behaviour could prompt them to play up and steal food.

It’s common for a dog behaviourist to not only assess your dog, but their environment and family dynamic. Yes, this means they would assess how you act with your dog, and if they determine this to be a possible issue then try not to be offended – they know their stuff!

Once your dog has been assessed the dog behaviourist will put together a plan to address the behaviour.

Why does my dog playfully bite me?

Play biting is usually rectified with obedience training, but you should always consider any other possible behavioural issues. Lack of activity or stimulus is a possibility, or teething puppies are more likely to nip and bite which may develop into a more serious behavioural problem.

A dog behaviourist would assess both your dog and their environment (so also how you communicate with them). The dynamic between you and your dog could well be a factor, such as they see you as an equal playmate rather than the boss or pack leader.

Usually you can stop you dog play biting by teaching them an alternate behavior to replace the biting.

When your dog bites or grabs at you during play, say “OUCH!” or “NO!” in a loud, firm voice, and immediately offer a toy or bone for him to chew instead. Praise your dog when he takes the toy or bone from you.

If he keeps trying to bite or grab at you, walk away and ignore him until he calms down.

Be consistent with this training and remain patient, it may take some time for your dog to learn how to play appropriately.

If you need help, a behaviourist is the way to go!

Why does my dog show aggression towards other animals?

Aggression is often exhibited as a way for dogs to communicate their displeasure or to try and assert dominance over others.

There are many reasons why a dog might become aggressive, including fear, pain, frustration, and competition for resources. Maybe you’ve introduced a new dog or pet to the household and they feel they need to defend their territory, food, or you as their guardian from this new perceived threat.

If your dog didn’t get a chance to socialise properly with other animals during their puppy phase then they may need to learn to interact calmly with them, as well as not feeling threatened.

A qualified dog behaviourist who can help you understand the underlying issues and work on solutions. They’ll recommend a course of action which may involve positive reinforcement, desensitisation, and obedience training.

Remember it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks – even aggressive dogs can learn to behave themselves given the right training and behavioural stimulus.

Why does my dog pull on the lead?

There can be many reasons why a dog pulls on the lead, but most of the time it’s because the dog is trying to get somewhere – usually either to get to another dog, person or animal they see, or to explore their surroundings.

Dogs as pack animals like to be in control of their surroundings, so when they’re on a lead and pulled along by their owner they can feel anxious and stressed.

In most cases, stopping your dog pulling on the lead is a matter of properly training them and establishing dominance over him/her.

If training proves unsuccessful, it’s possible anxiety or stress is the root cause of the pulling. They may be afraid of things in the environment such as cars, other people, other dogs, or noises.

These causes are hard for us dog owners to read, which is where a dog behaviourist will likely read their body language and understand any underlying reason which causes them to pull on the lead.

Why is my dog anxious in the car?

Some common reasons for a dog to be anxious in a car include motion sickness, lack of exercise, or anxiety from being in an unfamiliar environment.

Prior negative experiences in a car may also be a factor, which as owners we may not be aware of or understand.

If your dog has never been in a car before, it may be because he’s scared of the noise and movement. In this situation it’s important to gradually introduce your dog to the car so he becomes more comfortable with it.

Start by taking him for short rides around the neighborhood and reward him with treats and positive reinforcement when he behaves well. If this works, gradually extend the length of time he’s in the car, and you’ll likely see an improvement.

There are a few things that a dog behaviourist could do to help your dog respond better to being in the car.

For one, they could work on training the dog to stay calm and relaxed in the car. They could also help address any specific issues that the dog might have with being in cars, such as anxiety or fear.

Lastly, they could provide advice on how to make car rides more comfortable and enjoyable for the dog.

Canine psychology vs training classes

How does canine psychology work – As opposed to training classes?

A dog behaviourist will often suggest normal training classes as well as the more in depth, individual work.

Unlike trainers who, due to class sizes, can normally apply only one chosen technique to every dog they train regardless of breed or type or problem, canine psychologists have a vast repertoire of behavioural and training techniques at their disposal and will use a combination of both in order to solve the problems you are experiencing.

Behaviourists tend to work one-on-one rather than with large classes.

The most effective method of assessing any dog is within its home environment.

A good canine psychologist can interpret every move, every action and body language indicator to rapidly build up a profile of the dog through observation of the interaction between the dog and the people and circumstances which surround it.

Only by building a complete and thorough picture can the psychologist begin to analyse all the factors and understand why the dog behaves the way he does.

The canine psychologist is there to support the owner and work with them, often in conjunction with their own veterinary surgeon, to solve the problem using methods most appropriate to the individual needs of the dog and its owner.

In this way, coupled with the application of basic training techniques, complex problems can normally be solved in two or three sessions.

A typical approach of a dog behaviourist

A typical approach of a dog behaviourist can be as few as three sessions.

The first visit is invariably the most time consuming is to undertake the assessment of the dog and generally takes between two and three hours.

Following on from that, I normally compile a client report outlining the problems and the behaviour modification program, a copy of which being sent to to their vet, with the clients permission.

It’s important when dealing with canine problems to rule out any health problems which may be adversely affecting the dogs behaviour.

Think how grumpy you feel when you have really bad toothache for example. It’s for this reason canine psychologists aim to work as closely as possible with veterinary surgeons.

The second visit I spend time working with the client and the dog to ensure that they are applying the program to its best possible advantage.

Occasionally, depending on individual responses, the program may need to be adjusted.

A third visit is normally undertaken about three weeks after the first visit to review progress. Normally at this point the problem is entirely solved, or well on the way to being so.

Why does your dog act the way he does?

It’s important to understand dog behavioural problems develop for a huge variety of reasons.

These may include genetic predisposition, diet, or health being just a few.

Often the source of the problem can be traced back to an incident in the dog’s past which may have appeared so minor at the time that you have forgotten it occurred, or all too frequently if you’ve adopted a rescue dog, you are unaware of it completely.

Many dog owners have neither the expertise or time to solve these problems, however using a tried and tested multi-faceted approach we can work together my expertise, knowledge and experience, your time and patience. This is why a dog behaviourist may be your easiest option.

My last dog didn’t act this way!

Just as people are individuals, two dogs may exhibit the same behavioural traits whilst the motivations behind those behaviours may be entirely different.

This is rarely considered by a dog trainer, but an absolute fundamental for a dog behaviourist to understand what’s really going on.

To offer a very straightforward example, a dog may go to the toilet indoors because they haven’t learned it’s wrong, or their could be an underlying anxiety or health issue at play.

Two dogs may display this same behaviour, but the one who simply hasn’t learned the correct behaviour will be much easier to train than the one suffering anxiety or a health issue.

Why didn’t training classes work?

Training classes are aimed at dogs in general and generally won’t address the underlying cause of a behavioural trait. Because of this, your dog may not respond effectively to training.

Only by understanding the reason for a behaviour can a canine psychologist build an individual program of behavioural modification entirely personal to the dog and its circumstances.

The program can then be applied by the owner, with the help and guidance of the psychologist to cure the problem.

Only once the behaviour is understood can it be successfully addressed.

Finding a dog behaviourist locally

If you’re looking for a dog behaviourist in your local area it’s worth asking about their specific skillsets as this can differ.

According to Lin, she has gained particularly gained a reputation for large breed aggressive dogs, which is mostly what she’s known for locally. Social media can be a cause for this, due to referrals within a particular community. For Lin this has allowed her to excel in this area of dog behaviour, but by no means is she limited to this.

When undertaking this type of work obviously safety is of paramount importance, and as a consequence it is not an area that every canine psychologist is comfortable working in.

However whether you are working with a corgi that barks incessantly in the car or an Akita which is a habitual biter, the fundamental principles are the same.

Case study: From a dog behaviourist

The following is a genuine case study from Lin, and really describes how behavioural issues in dogs can be addressed:

A German Shepherd bitch of about three years old, lived in a household consisting of two adults, two teenage children, another dog and a cat. 

With all aggression cases I ask the owners to place the dog in another room before I arrive so that I can spend some time discussing the problems with them and getting as much of a feel as I can for what I about to deal with before meeting the dog.

In this case the problem was severe.

Understanding dog behaviour, by a dog behaviourist

The dog was extremely aggressive towards strangers who visited, and even with people she had met before she could suddenly become aggressive without warning.

In one instance the dog had pinned a family member against the wall at a recent family gathering.

Oddly enough however the owner didn’t seem to regard that particular incident as particularly important. 

In addition, outside the house the dog was even worse, being aggressive towards both people and other dogs.

The dog had already had a number of sessions with a private dog trainer, who had ultimately advised the owners the dog should be euthanised.

I think the behavioural modification programme for the dog was the most complex I have ever written.  In addition to the fear aggression there were hierarchy issues with the other dog in the house and the confidence of the owners had obviously been reduced to an all time low.

It was clear the owners loved the dog. They had brought her up well and sensibly doing the right things, but still they had this enormous problem on their hands.

Whilst fear aggression itself is not an hereditary trait, the susceptibility to it certainly is. I actually knew the bloodlines of the particular dog as had treated a number of her relatives in the past, and therefore knew what we were up against.

Not only did we need to systematically desensitise the dog towards other dogs, but also to people.

This required a number of friends and relatives to be co-opted into the plan to visit, armed with treats. 

The visitors were invited in seated and then the dog brought out on a lead, if she barked or showed any form of aggressive behaviour she would immediately be returned to the other room for a two minute time out before the process was repeated.  When she walked in calmly the treat was offered.

In addition the program completely changed the way the owners related to the dog on a very basic level. 

When they came downstairs in the morning they would completely ignore her for a period of ten minutes, no physical or verbal contact whatsoever.

If the dog approached them they would turn their back on her and carry on.  The same treatment was carried out every time they returned home from work or whenever they returned to the house no matter how short their absence.

When it was feeding time the owners would prepare food for the dog and leave it on a bench. They would then proceed to eat their own food in front of the dog.

When they had finished their meal they would allow the dog to eat.

If the dog brought toys for them to play with or made any attention seeking moves at all she was completely ignored.  When she retired and lay quietly they called her to them made a fuss of her and instigated a session of play.

Basic training techniques were revisited in order to improve the owners level of control.

With regard to the dog’s behaviour outside the home, I needed to bring the owners’ level of confidence up to the point where they were comfortable handling the dog without any sign of anxiety.

This dog was a reluctant pack leader as she believed her owners were not capable of doing the job of pack leader adequately enough to protect her and it was now our job to change her mind.

It was obvious to them long before I had visited that the dog was nervous, and when she displayed this outside they would do their best to calm her by saying good dog and stroking her.

Sadly all they were saying to the dog in actuality was what a good dog to act that way and reinforcing the behaviour.

Subsequently I ensured that all inappropriate behaviour such as lunging and snapping was completely ignored when the dog was out.

We changed her from a check chain and lead to a “dog alter” and half check which gave them a much greater level of control whilst walking the dog. 

The “dog alter” is a type of head collar which fits over the dog’s nose and fastens behind the head.  The lead is then attached to a ring under the chin and to the half check chain.  These head collars are completely painless and allow the owner to have more control in averting the dogs head, thereby breaking eye contact with oncoming dogs and people.  The dog is also less able to pull.

Both husband and wife were much more confident walking the dog this way and therefore much less likely to transfer stress to her.

It tends to become a cycle – the owner will see another dog coming, automatically anticipate a problem and tighten their grip on the lead thereby transferring their anxiety to the dog. That was a behaviour by the owners which we needed to break.

Finally, after a month I introduced her to my own therapy dog who worked with her in close proximity, walking along next to her exuding all the confidence that a dog should.

I worked with them for 3 sessions over a month period and in the final session we worked on play with other dogs off the lead.

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