Common Dog Behavior Problems: The Causes & What To Do About Them
By Alli Wittbold
Chewing, barking, leash pulling, jumping. Ah, the joys of owning a dog. These and other dog behavior problems can cause a lot of frustration for dog owner.
Maybe you’re here looking to nip your puppy’s behavior problems in the bud. Or maybe you're fed up with your older dog jumping up on the counters every time your turn around. Perhaps things are more serious, and you're done with your dog’s destructive chewing or looking to cure their separation anxiety once and for all.
To get started, there are a few questions to ask yourself when assessing many dog behavior problems:
- Is there an underlying discomfort or medical issue going on with my dog?
- Are my dog’s mental and physical needs being met, especially before I leave for the day?
- Does my dog’s environment set them up for behavior success?
But I know that things can be a little trickier and more specific than that.
So, whether you’re new to this whole dog parent thing, or just in need of some solid dog behavior problem advice, you’re in the right place. Let’s unpack eight of the most common dog behavior problems. We’ll discuss the common causes and what you can about the problem right away.
1. Destructive Chewing
Destructive chewing is a common behavior problem among puppies and adult dogs alike. The cause and way to address the behavior are slightly different depending on your dog’s age. Let’s break it down.
Cause of Destructive Chewing in Puppies
If you have a dog that is less than a year old, the root cause of their chewing is likely a combination of teething and needing to learn what’s okay to chew. Puppies need to chew to relieve their sore gums and provide themselves with mental stimulation.
What to do about destructive chewing in puppies
- Crate or confine your puppy when you are not with them or able to give them your full attention
Dog-proof your home to set your puppy up for success
- Immediately give your puppy something they CAN chew when you catch them chewing something they shouldn’t
- Give them lots of praise and positive reinforcement whenever they are chewing something that is meant for chewing
Cause of destructive chewing in adult dogs
If you have an adult dog that is suddenly chewing, it can be a little trickier to determine the cause. Most often, chewing in adult dogs is caused by:
- Boredom due to a recent change in routine or lifestyle that leaves your dog with less exercise, training, or attention in general
- The resurgence of, or new, separation anxiety
- Mouth pain due to tooth decay or gum disease
What to do about destructive chewing in adult dogs
When an adult dog suddenly exhibits destructive chewing behavior, you should take it a big red flag. Your adult dog likely knows that chewing is a no-no, so they are either intentionally trying to send you a message, or they’re trying to relieve genuine pain.
Your plan of attack will vary depending on the root cause, and with any kind of behavior change in an older dog, it’s always worth a trip to the vet to rule out more serious issues.
In addition to that, general things you can do to curb your older dog’s destructive chewing:
- Go back to confining your dog to a smaller, well dog-proofed area
- Re-train yourself to put away easily chewed items
- Check in with yourself about your dog’s mental and physical stimulation. Are they getting enough exercise, attention, or other mental stimulation?
- Provide your dog with a rotation of fun and interesting toys they can chew
Undesired and excessive barking is a dog behavior that no owner wants. It can be disruptive, frustrating, and off-putting to visitors. While some barking is expected, and certain breeds may feel the need to bark more than others, excessive barking can be controlled
Why does my dog bark so much?
There are a few common reasons that your dog is barking excessively:
- Protecting or guarding your home/their territory
- Scared or startled by a sudden sound or movement
- To communicate a need to you
- Barking when you leave due to separation anxiety
What to do about unwanted barking?
Give them adequate stimulation
Like many behavior problems, the first thing to assess is if your dog is getting enough physical and mental stimulation. Dogs, and especially young, large breed dogs, need a lot of exercise to feel satisfied and be able to ‘chill’ quietly when at home. Make sure you are providing your dog with lots of opportunities to run, exercise and ideally socialize with other dogs.
Mental stimulation can also help with boredom. Working on commands and tricks, playing hide and seek, and mentally stimulation chew toys and puzzles can all help with this.
Block their view
Often, dogs bark in response to something (or just about anything) they see out the window. While you are working on training your dog to bark less, change the environment. Keep your shades closed on windows, and keep windows and doors closed to minimize noise from the outside too.
Use positive reinforcement to teach a quiet command
Yelling at your dog to stop barking while they’re barking sends the message that you are joining in. Your response to their barking and the energy you send can definitely fuel the situation and make it worse.
Instead, try to stay calm or not react at all while they are barking, at least in the beginning while you are training them. Once they quiet on their own, wait a few seconds, and praise them in a big way with a great treat.
Pick a word to indicate their silent behavior (ie: quiet). Continue to reinforce when they are being quiet. Before you know it, if you calmly but firmly say "quiet" while they are barking they will be able to control themselves.
Tell them to go get a toy
With a toy in their mouth, your dog can’t bark (well, not as well anyway). Our lab actually started doing this on his own. When we’d tell him "quiet", he’d run to put a toy in his mouth to stop himself from barking. Now, we just use the command “Where’s your toy?” and he knows to fill his mouth with something else to resist the urge to bark.
There’s nothing worse than a large dog sitting with their head practically in your lap begging for food. They know exactly where to position themselves and turn on the “puppy eyes” to score some table scraps.
Throw a toddler or child who frequently drops food on the floor into the mix, and even the most well-training dog can slip back into begging.
What to do about a dog who begs at the table during meals?
The most important thing is to never give them food from the table. As soon as you do this, you are rewarding the behavior. Beyond that, decide what behavior is acceptable for your dog during meal times. Some families choose to barricade their dog into another space altogether.
If your dog has strong base commands, utilize their knowledge to lay down and stay to get them where they are allowed to be. For the most part, we’re okay with our dogs being around during meals as long as they are laying on the floor.
Some dogs can’t handle that and need to be further from temptation. And some families aren’t okay with that and think meal times should be separate from dogs. So you will need to decide and then be consistent.
How can I get my dog to go to “their spot” in the house?
Our dogs each have a bed in our living room, and when they start to beg or misbehave during human meal time, we tell them to “Go lay down!”, and they know to go to their spots.
You can start working on something similar with your dog by training them to go to their spot when it’s not meal-time. Use a lead on their neck and treats to help them learn where to go when you give a certain command.
With some dedication and repetition, your dog will learn to do this whenever they are asked. This training also comes in handy when visitors come to the door, or other times you need your dog safely out of the way.
4. Counter Surfing
Whew. This is a tough one and one I know well. Even with diligent training, my dogs still jump on the counter the minute I turn my back and the opportunity to score some food is there. At least they wait until I’m not looking – ha.
How can I get my dog to stop counter surfing?
Train yourself to keep food out of reach
The first thing you can do to stop counter surfing really is to train yourself and family not to leave food in your dog’s reach. Any defrosting meat, cooling baked goods, or leftover pizza should be put on top of the fridge, pushed to the way back of the counter, or in the microwave.
By eliminating the temptation, there’s no reward or reinforcement to keep trying to counter surf for your dog.
Train them by catching them in the act of counter surfing
Beyond that, I’ve only had luck stopping counter surfing by keeping a loose lead on their neck, and yanking them down with a firm no when they are in the act. The moment they jump down; you’ve lost your opportunity.
This is why my dog’s don’t try to counter surf in front of me. Which, was a huge improvement (especially for our lab) in our household. Beyond that, they are pretty good, but if something is left in their reach they’ve been known to go for it as soon as we walk out of the room.
If you’ve got a tip or some advice for me on counter surfing, please leave a comment below!
Try a positive approach
Some people (even friends of mine) have had luck taking a positive approach. To try this, you reward your dog when they are back on the ground and teach a command, such as down.
Digging is a natural and very common behavior in dogs. Because of this, it can be a difficult behavior to discourage, but there are definitely some things you can try. First, let’s understand why your dog is digging in the first place.
Why is my dog digging?
- To cure boredom and find mental stimulation
- To hide desired objects
- Because they hear or see rodents
- To create a cool spot to retreat to outside
- To escape your fence
What to do to stop my dog’s digging?
With three large breed dogs, we’ve experience digging for every reason listed above. Digging has been a difficult behavior to stop, but here are my top tips for curbing it, or at least stopping it in the most undesired places.
- Increase your dog’s exercise—a tired dog won’t be as motivated to dig
- Keep your dog entertained in the yard in other ways—fetch or puzzle toys can keep them busy and occupied
- Barricade areas you really don’t want them digging in—after I replanted the same impatiens 3 times last spring, we finally put up wire fencing around the bed. Even a small barricade surprisingly turned their diffing efforts elsewhere
- Start a hole in an area of your yard you’re okay with digging—remember digging is their natural instinct. You may not be able to stop it entirely, but you might have luck changing it to a better spot
- Keep your dog cool and encourage them to come inside on really hot days—our husky is a big culprit of digging to create a cool den for herself.
6. Leash Pulling
Ah! Dogs who constantly pull on a leash, to the point of choking themselves or pulling you down, is such frustrating behavior! If you have a puppy, working right from the start on loose leash walking is a must! If you have an older dog, you can still create better habits, but it will take more work.
Why does my dog pull on a leash?
They don’t know any different, and might not know tight, leash pulling is undesirable for you—crazy but true! Nine times out of ten, this is what’s going on. Walking with a loose leash is a behavior that has to be taught, it isn’t how a dog naturally wants to walk. But, your dog is smart and wants to please, so it can certainly be taught.
If your dog only starts pulling when approaching other dogs, you might be dealing with leash aggression which is a different issue than general leash pulling.
How to train your dog to walk on a loose leash?
The “Be a Tree” method
In this method, you do not move forward with your dog until the leash is loose. As soon as your dog starts pulling you put the leash to your body and stand still, like a tree. Here, you can then give a treat for the loose leash and continue walking, or let the forward motion be the reward in itself. You’ll need to decide this based on your own dog and how bad the leash pulling is.
This method is said to work especially well with puppies, but with consistency can be effective with older dogs too.
Practice “on hip” walking with your dog off leash
This is a really great method if your dog is really good off leash, or if you have a large enclosed space to work with your dog. Use treats and/or a positive upbeat voice to keep your dog walking right next to you while you are walking with them off leash. Reward with a treat every few steps that they stay at your side.
You can use a consistent word to instill this behavior. We use "heel", which our dog knows well as a sit and stay on hip, and he quickly learned that when we say it while walking it means to move in sync with us.
Use positive reinforcement while walking on a leash
Another approach, or used in conjunction with the off-leash practice, is done on leash. In this case, any time your dog starts pulling you should actually start walking backward. Call your dog toward you and reward them. Then continue walking forward with a loose leash.
As long as the leash remains loose, reward them every few steps. As soon as they begin pulling, go backward again. Your dog’s main motive in their pulling is to get where they are going. So by moving in the opposite directions, it will click to your dog that it’s taking much longer and the desired walking pace is with a loose leash.
7. Jumping Up
A dog who jumps up on people is never well-liked. First impressions are everything, and jumping is intimidating and frustrating to visitors, family, and friends. Jumping is a behavior that seems like an instinct in certain dogs and needs consistency and time to be curbed.
How can I get my dog to stop jumping up on people?
Work on it as a family
The most important line of defense is a commitment on your part and everyone in your household. When your dog jumps up, do not engage in any way with your dog. You can turn your body, freeze, or fold your arms over your chest.
Once all four paws are on the ground, give lots of attention and praise. Your dog will eventually get the message that jumping doesn’t get them attention.
You can also utilize a sit command if your dog knows it well. Make an effort to have a few treats in your pocket when you arrive home. As soon as you walk in the door, give a sit command and then reward your dog with lots of praise and a treat.
Take precautions when guests are coming
While your dog is learning to contain their excited, jumpy behavior, its best to either keep your dog away when guests arrive or have a leash on them. This way you can better control their behavior. If your guests are willing or are “dog people” themselves, ask them to use the same strategies you do, by not engaging and turning their bodies when your dog jumps up.
Put something in their mouth
Some dogs are better able to contain their jumping when they have a toy in their mouth. You can experiment with putting something in your dog’s mouth when they are jumping to see if it will help your dog. You can then use a “Go get your toy” type command when you arrive home.
8. Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is a tricky and complicated issue for many dog owners. Separation anxiety occurs when your dog exhibits compulsive or destructive behaviors when left alone.
What causes separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety often occurs when there is a sudden change in your dog’s life. This could be a new baby joining the family, a divorce, a death of a family member, or when a family member moves out. Separation anxiety can also occur when there is a large schedule change and your dog is suddenly alone for longer periods of time when they weren’t in the past.
Sometimes, separation anxiety occurs simply because of the strong bond your dog has with you. Certain breeds are more prone to separation anxiety for this reason.
Lastly, foster dogs or adopted dogs might exhibit more separation anxiety because of an unstable past and fear of abandonment.
How can I help my dog’s separation anxiety?
Make no mistake, separation anxiety can be a huge issue for many dog families, and I highly encourage you involving your vet in the solution. Your vet can provide many specific points of advice, recommend local trainers, or even know when medication might be needed until things get better.
But more generally, here are the top tips to help your dog overcome separation anxiety:
- As always, keep your dog well exercised, stimulated, and be sure there is a lot of intentional one-on-one time with your dog when you are home
- Switch up your routine when you leave the house. Your dog will associate a certain pattern of putting on your coat, getting your keys, etc. with you leaving. Simply changing the routine, won’t cue their anxiety
- Stop yourself from making a big deal when you come and go. By doing this, you’re sending the message that it is a stressful and important act. In serious situations, it's actually best not to say goodbye at all.
- Work on separation anxiety by leaving for short amounts of time and gradually increasing the time you are away. This will help your dog trust that you will come back. This is especially effective with newly adopted or fostered dogs
- Crate or confine your dog while you are away to keep them, and your home safe from destructive behavior
Now you’re ready to tackle the most common behavior problems your dog may face
Here we’ve discussed eight of the most common dog behavior problems. With this guide, you’ll be able to quickly get to the root of the problem and start improving things immediately. Be sure to share this article so that you can easily find it again later!
Facing a problem with your dog that’s not on the list? Be sure to check out the Monster K9 Blog archive for more great info on large dogs!
Have a tip that I didn’t include, or better yet, a way to get my dogs to stop counter surfing 😉? Please drop a comment below! We love to hear from readers.
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