Thursday, 26 August 2021

We Need to Stop Talking About 'Behaviour Problems'


How often do we hear dog guardians and the people connected with them say things like ‘Can you fix my dog’s behaviour problem?’ or ‘Can you stop our dog’s bad behaviour?’ There are issues with questions like these.

Thinking of situations as arising from a dog being ‘bad’ or doing something wrong places blame on the dog, which is not fair. This kind of question, this way of thinking, also approaches the question from entirely the wrong angle. It focuses on trying to work out how we can change the dog, rather than changing the environment or the situation to be the best fit for everyone, and meet the dog’s needs.

Because we all really want the same thing - happy dogs!

The very first thing we need to consider is what the function of behaviour actually is, what it’s for, what it does.

What Is Behaviour?

Behaviour is not something our dogs do randomly. They don’t do things to spite us, no matter what some with outdated thinking or who are poorly educated may think. A dog who messes in the house is not attempting to get revenge for something. A dog does not chew up your favourite shoes, books, the living room carpet etc. to make some kind of point. Some behaviours that humans can commonly have issues with are normal, natural dog behaviour that we shouldn’t try to stop, but should instead find ways to allow our dogs to fulfil those natural drives and needs.

Canine behaviour is functional. When our dogs do something, it is for a reason. Behaviour is an external representation of the internal state of the dog, the emotions they are feeling and their specific- and breed-specific needs. When we can understand the emotions and needs that drive our dogs’ behaviours, we can work out what needs to change to improve the situation (spoiler alert: it’s not the dog that needs to change!)

Common ‘Behaviour Problems’

Inappropriate Toileting

I’ve heard guardians say they think that their dogs have toileted in the house to get back at them somehow. Dogs don’t do that kind of thing. A dog who toilets in the house does so for one of a number of reasons, but it’s never a fit of pique. Reasons for inappropriate toileting may include:

  • Insufficient toilet training
  • A health problem
  • Separation related distress/Separation anxiety
  • Anxiety
  • Age Related Changes (cognitive dysfunction in older dogs can include changes in toileting).


This is a natural dog behaviour. Part of being a good dog guardian involves giving them appropriate opportunities to chew. The easiest way to make sure that dogs don’t chew your belongings is to give them things they can chew, and avoid putting them in situations where they may feel stressed and need to chew to soothe themselves – both chewing and licking are naturally soothing and relaxing for dogs. If a dog grabs something they shouldn’t be chewing, trade it for something tasty they can chew. Tripe sticks are a favourite in this house.

Door Racing

How often does the doorbell ring, prompting the dog(s) to race towards the front door, making opening it a logistical nightmare always needing at least one more hand than we actually have? This is a case of failing to teach appropriate behaviours for when the doorbell rings. Teaching a dog to go to a specified place on hearing the doorbell can stop this problem – for instance, my dog goes into the kitchen when the doorbell rings, behind a baby gate for additional safety.

Jumping Up

This is another very common issue. A big part of the problem is that jumping up is cute in a puppy and we can unintentionally reward it with attention and fuss. That little puppy scrabbling at your knee with the cute floppy ears is much less cute when it's 33 kg of adult male Golden Retriever. A lot of the time, jumping comes on greeting people, and is an expression of pure joy on the new people arriving, but one that can be very uncomfortable for the recipient. As with door racing, teaching the dog to go somewhere when people arrive can take some of the initial excitement out of the situation. Teaching 'all 4 on the floor' so that fuss and attention only comes when all the dog's paws are on the floor can help. Alternatively, a simple management tip is to have some toys near the door so you can toss one for the dog to go and find and redirect their excitement and enthusiasm onto that rather then the newly arrived guests.


This is something that often comes up as a request for help to stop the dog growling. The thing is, the very last thing we ever want to do is stop a dog growling. A growl is how the dog lets us know that they are really struggling with something, that they are incredibly uncomfortable about something in their environment. Do anything to stop the dog growling and we take away their last level of warning before feeling so pressurised, so intensely worried by their situation, they feel there is no choice but to bite.

The key to stopping growling is to make sure we don’t put the dog in the situation that leads to the growling. This means heeding their warnings and managing the situation so they are not put in that position again.

Pulling on lead

This is one of the most common ‘problems’ guardians report. In truth, it’s not really a ‘behaviour problem’ at all, it’s a difference in pace. Dogs naturally move faster than we do. Dogs also do not come out of the womb knowing how to walk on a loose lead. We need to teach them. It’s best done when they are young so they never learn to pull in the first place, but can be taught later on with positive reinforcement methods like the 300 peck method or the Hagrid protocol, which is a particular favourite of mine.


This is another natural behaviour, especially if your dog has any terrier in them. While we prefer them not to dig up the flowerbeds or shrubbery borders, we should not prevent them from digging at all. Provide an area where they can dig, such as a sandpit, and that will protect the plants from being dug up.


Dogs will be dogs, and dogs bark. It’s a fact of life for most of us with dogs – they bark. There are different kinds of barking, from alarm and alert barking to barking for attention and barking through boredom. There are different ways of cutting down barking.

One that seems counter-intuitive is to teach the dog to ‘speak’ on command. By putting the barking on cue, many dogs will bark less. For alert or alarm barking to things outside, people moving around etc., say ‘thank you’. It sounds strange to begin with, but by thanking the dog for barking and rewarding it with tasty food, the dog will begin to associate the things they are barking at with good stuff and come to seek you out when previously they would have stood and barked.

Attention barking and boredom barking can both be tackled by ensuring our dogs have plenty of physical and mental stimulation. Scentwork games, food based enrichment, training sessions, all of these, as well as their regular walks, will help the dog to relax and ‘switch off’.


This does signify a problem, but it’s one that needs empathy, not discipline. These dogs are scared, and need help to improve their relationship with the world. The best thing we can give these dogs is understanding, both around find the things that scare them and in managing their world to minimise their stress while working on a kind and ethical behaviour modification programme to improve their confidence and resilience in the world. In many cases, once any medical problems that may have caused anxiety to increase and start the fearful behaviour, it’s worth contacting a behaviour professional for help in putting a programme together which will reduce their stress and fear.

Being ‘stubborn’

This one is a real bugbear for many canine professionals. Dogs are not stubborn. They don’t refuse to do things for no reason. If a dog won’t respond to a cue, it’s because of a cause:

  • The cue isn’t properly established
  • The environment is too distracting
  • The reward isn’t motivating enough

We need to stop talking about ‘behaviour problems’ – it’s all just behaviour. When we understand what’s driving the behaviour, we can see how to change things so that the behaviours we may find problematic are no longer a problem for us or the dog.

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