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Why We Should Look Beyond 'Stopping' Behaviour

Updated: Jul 8

When we live with dogs, sometimes we can find the things they do problematic. The term 'behaviour problem' is commonly used, but the truth is that most of the dog behaviours we see are normal and natural dog behaviours. They are not really a problem as far as the dog is concerned, but they are something the humans in the family can find difficult to cope with.

It can be extremely easy to think that the main thing we should focus on is stopping the 'problem behaviour' – after all, if we’ve stopped the behaviour we don’t like, the problem goes away. The issue with that line of thinking is that when we concentrate only on stopping the behaviour rather than finding an alternative, what we are actually doing is suppressing the behaviour.

What’s the difference? The behaviour stops, which is the most important thing in some people's minds. The thing is that there is a world of difference, and it all comes down to the question of WTF (What’s The Function?)

There is a phrase often said that there is no such thing as good or bad behaviour, it’s all simply behaviour. Underneath that behaviour will be an emotion, a need that the dog is fulfilling in that moment. If we focus on stopping the behaviour, that does not remove the emotion that the dog is feeling or the need that the dog has right then. This is why it is vital to consider and understand the function of the behaviour.

The dog who barks may hear something outside of the home that worries them or see movement out of the window and feel the need to alert their humans to this fact or drive the interloper away. Simply stopping the dog barking will not remove the effect of hearing or seeing the thing outside. The underlying emotion will still be there.

Much more effective and considerate to the dog to consider management to stop them being bothered by seeing things outside of the window, perhaps by the use of window film to block the dog’s view while still letting light into the room. For the dog barking at sounds outside we can teach them a cue that signifies we have heard them barking and acknowledging that they have alerted us to the thing outside. Something as simple as a ‘Job done, thank you!’ followed by a tasty treat when the dog quiets for a moment will soon have the dog happy that they have done their part and the humans have got things under control.

The dog who guards their food or toys from other dogs in the household or family members is worried about losing access to a valuable resource. The item they are guarding may not seem important to us, but it is incredibly important to them and that is what matters. Trying to force them to give up whatever it is they want to keep hold of will likely only make the problem worse. Careful management to avoid the dog feeling pressured when they have something like a tasty chew or are playing with a favourite toy can prevent the problem arising and the dog feeling the need to guard.

The dog who growls and lunges at other dogs may seem aggressive at first glance, but this behaviour is often based in fear. Unfortunately, a knee jerk reaction on encountering this can be to punish – the behaviour of growling, barking, and lunging may feel shocking and embarrassing. When we realise that underlying emotion is fear, we can begin to see that the dog needs our help and support to feel safer and more comfortable around the source of their fear.

Many behaviours are signs that in some way the dog’s needs are not being met. Consider the dog who creates chaos by excavating the flowerbeds. Digging is a completely normal and natural canine behaviour, and part of our responsibilities as caregivers is to ensure that the dogs in our care have opportunities to carry out natural behaviours. Stopping the dog digging without providing a more suitable outlet means we are not meeting this need. Giving the dog a ‘legal’ location to dig, such as a child’s sandpit for instance, will meet the dog’s needs and allow the function of the behaviour without endangering the shrubbery. Providing ‘legal’ items to chew and using them to replace things we’d rather the dog didn’t chew, and removing access to precious items we really don’t want damaged will stop any problematic chewing of our possessions, furniture, and door surrounds - and I’m speaking from experience with that one! With some planning to have the appropriate chews to hand and good observation of the dog, this problem can be easily avoided.

Some ‘problem behaviours’ are the result of the fact that dogs are not born automatically knowing the rules they need to follow to live in human homes and families. No dog comes into the world automatically set up to walk at heel or understanding that, despite the fact they tend to move faster than humans, they should match their pace to ours so that the lead always stays loose.

Loose lead walking is something we can coach in puppies from early in their lives with us (even better if we can also use a longer lead to give our dogs more freedom to explore when safe to do so). The heel position if chosen as a cue can also be taught early at home in the garden so that the puppy is familiar with the cue when introducing distractions and the excitement of going out into the world and being able to experience it on their own four paws.

Stopping behaviour by suppressing it in the way that using aversive measures like lead pops, prong collars, or shock collars, shouting at, hitting or kicking a dog might appear to 'work' in that moment. The problem is that they don't deal with the why of the behaviour, the emotions and needs that are causing the behaviour. That means the potential for the behaviour to reoccur is still there, unless the dog is shouted at/smacked/lead jerked again. There is the risk that the aversive methods used stops working, and what then? Stronger and more forceful 'corrections'? Bigger prongs, higher level of shock applied? More pain and fear for the dog?

The other issue with not understanding and helping the dog with their emotions is that of fallout. The feelings are still there, and, at some point, those feelings are going to come out in the form of behaviour again. When a behaviour has been suppressed, those emotions could well come out in a much more dramatic and dangerous way than was the case for the original behaviour. The dog could associate the feelings they are struggling with, and the fear and pain that came with suppressing that behaviour, with their caregiver or potentially any, animal or thing in their environment, and this could all too easily end in biting.

If a behaviour is problematic for us and it does need to be changed, find an alternative behaviour we can ask the dog to do instead and reward that. This way the behaviour is not suppressed, and we show the dog what we would like them to do. If the dog is lunging towards other dogs or people or things in their environment, give them a break from being exposed to these things that scare them and work out a careful plan to help them feel more comfortable around the source of their discomfort. It may be that you need the help of a behaviour professional to create and guide you through this programme, or indeed to work with other problematic behaviours a dog may be showing.

Whenever we are thinking about the behaviours we see in our dogs, especially the ones we may find problematic, it’s important to think about why the behaviour is happening, whether it’s something we should be trying to change and, if so, how we can change them in an ethical and fair way while still letting our dogs be dogs and carrying out their natural behaviours.

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