Interview with Carol Millman: Solving Your Dog’s Behavior Problems
Behavioral problems are one of the main reasons dogs are surrendered to shelters across the country.
When a dog becomes destructive or disruptive, many pet owners can’t or don’t know how to deal with it, and some take the easy way out.
The truth, however, is that most behavior problems can be tied to simple issues such as boredom or anxiety. Taking the time to understand what’s causing your dog to misbehave is the first step to changing that behavior.
We talked to Carol Millman, B.Sc., RAHT, CTDI, owner of Wag The Dog Pet Training, to figure out what’s behind Fido’s bad behavior. Millman, who has a degree in psychology and did an apprenticeship training with dogs for people with disabilities, believes it’s very rarely just mischief.
What would you say are the most common behavior problems you see in dogs?
I would say that barking, destructiveness and digging are all very common. The number one thing that I get called in for, though, is specifically barking on walks, either at other dogs or people, usually accompanied by pulling on the leash.
Are some behavior problems more common in certain breeds than others?
Absolutely. It is easy to make sweeping generalizations when you see certain problems again and again in certain breeds. Cocker Spaniels are submissive urinators and will pee whenever someone walks in the door, for example. Yorkies have housebreaking problems. Chihuahuas are fear-aggressive. Hound dogs make too much noise. Huskies escape the yard.
But when you make sweeping generalizations based on breed, you do a disservice to those dogs. Every breed is going to have good points and bad points, but every dog is still an individual.
Breed-based generalizations vilify all of the Cocker Spaniels who don’t pee at the front door, the beautifully potty-trained Yorkies, the loving and social Chihuahuas, the quiet Beagles and the homebody Huskies. They exist and there are plenty of them. But whenever you get a dog, it is good to know what problems their breed is prone to so that you can be on the lookout for them and know in advance how to handle or, better yet, prevent them.
Many of the behaviour problems that come with a breed are also not really problems; they are behaviors that the dog has been bred to do that the owner simply has not provided an outlet for. Huskies are bred to run long distances. Border collies are bred to chase sheep. Hound dogs are bred to track and then bark loudly so the handler knows where they are.
So when someone tries to keep a Husky home in their yard, or get a Border collie to ignore running cats, or ask a coon hound to keep their nose off of the ground and be quiet, you are asking them to violate hundreds of generations of instinct. Dogs want to satisfy their basic purpose in life and often behavior problems arise from asking a dog to ignore their basic purpose.
Once you find a positive outlet for these instincts, the problems resolve. You just need to replace a bad outlet with a better one. Teach your Husky to pull a cart full of groceries home from the store. Teach your hound to find the remote control and your keys. Teach your border collie to herd you by staying at your heels on a walk.
Would you say that most behavior problems are connected to boredom and anxiety?
Yes, in a way. More specifically, I would say that most behavior problems, including anxiety, are caused by a misapplication of energy. Ideally, a dog’s energy should be directed toward good outlets: games of fetch or tug, long hikes, cute and helpful tricks, obedience and so on. But if a dog’s energy isn’t directed into positive outlets, it will manifest as less welcome behavior like barking, digging, leash pulling and anxiety.
What signs/things should owners look for when trying to decide if their pets are experiencing behavioral issues related to boredom/anxiety?
It’s easier to rule out boredom than it is to identify it, since I find that it is at least one of the factors in almost every home I visit.
To rule out boredom, ask yourself, does my dog get to run until he is panting at least once a day? Does my dog come home and collapse in exhaustion at least a couple of times a week? Does my dog have jobs around the house that are expected of him daily, like bringing me my shoes in the morning, doing a down-stay while people are eating, finding the remote control on command or sitting and shaking a paw with anyone we meet on walks?
Is my dog always working on learning at least one new trick or obedience command? And once they have mastered one trick, do you start teaching another? Does my dog have to work for and earn all food? Does my dog have puzzles and chew toys to enjoy when I am out of the house?
As you can imagine, most households will answer no to at least one or two of those questions, which means that boredom must be considered as a possible factor/contributor to the dog’s misbehavior.
As for anxiety, relieving boredom alone will not necessarily cure it, but it will provide other outlets for that nervous energy and build the dog’s confidence by making them feel useful and valued, which will relieve and reduce many anxious behaviors. But you will need to combine that with a behavior modification program to help the dog overcome their fears.
What about aggression? Is aggression often related to other issues that need to be addressed before the dog can get better and change?
Aggression is a really broad word, because it encompasses a lot of reasons for aggressive behavior. Dogs may be aggressive out of fear (the most common reason) or because they have been accidentally rewarded for aggressive behavior, or because they are territorial/guarding resources or because they are frustrated or experiencing seizures or in pain. Some of these are a misdirection of energy, just as anxiety and other negative behavior can be. Others are not.
In order to address the root of the aggression, you need a vet to rule out medical causes and a trainer to help you find the source of the aggressive behavior so it can be addressed correctly.
But a good leadership program and ensuring that all of the steps against boredom that I listed is always a good first step, once medical causes are ruled out.
A lot of people don’t realize that medical problems can sometimes disguise themselves as behavior problems. Can you give us some examples of problem behaviors dogs might showcase when sick or in pain?
Aggressive behavior is a big one, especially in a dog that never used to be aggressive. Even in chronic aggression cases, though, you can often find that long term pain—such as in the case of hip dysplasia or a rotten tooth—is at the root of the aggression.
When we are in pain, we get cranky. We snap at people we love and trust. Dogs are no different. Old age aggression is usually caused by chronic pain, for example.
I also once met a dog who was usually very friendly, but would explode into aggressive outbursts for no apparent reason. We called in a vet and it turned out that those outbursts were actually a kind of seizure and the dog had epilepsy.
Another commonly misattributed behavior problem is urinating or defecating inside the house. Bladder infections are common and often go unnoticed. Vet clinics tend to see a rise in bladder infection cases after a fresh snowfall because the owner suddenly realizes that their dog’s urine is bloody. But in most cases the urine looks fine and the only symptom is frequent urination and/or dribbling.
Spayed female dogs can also experience incontinence due to lack of estrogen, and may leak urine, especially while sleeping. This is easily treatable but often goes misidentified as poor housebreaking instead.
Dogs who defecate frequently and have accidents in the house can have intestinal problems. My own dog started to have poop accidents in the house. I blamed it on my long hours out of the house at work and lack of proper walks in the morning. But his routine senior blood work revealed an elevation is his pancreatic enzymes, a sign of pancreatitis. Repeated rechecks of his blood work showed that this was chronic, and an ultrasound revealed that he had developed inflammatory bowel disease. I had blamed his increasing crankiness with strange dogs on his old age, but it turned out that chronic pain was involved.
So you see, even a dog trainer and veterinary technician can miss subtle medical signs and blame them on behavioral/environmental factors. It is always a good idea to get a vet to check things out first!
What is the most successful approach to treating behavioral problems in dogs? Is training enough or do some dogs need a more personalized approach (akin to “therapy sessions” with a dog specialist)?
All dogs need a personalized approach, because there are lots of training methods out there, and you have to find the one that works best for both dog and owner. Group classes are cheaper and can sometimes be useful, but it’s a bit of a gamble that the method being taught will be right for you and your dog.
However, eliminating medical causes and boredom as factors are a great step that you can take at home, and then if necessary you can call in a trainer or sign up for a class to deal with residual issues.
In general, good first steps to take are to make sure your dog has been checked over by a vet you trust to do a thorough job. Deal with any medical issues, including a management plan for chronic problems like arthritis or allergies. Make sure that your dog runs until tired at least once a day, preferably before the time the behavior problem occurs (for example if your dog destroys the house while you are gone, wear your dog out before you leave in the morning, or if your dog barks at people on walks, have a tiring tug or fetch session inside or in the yard first).
Always be working on a new trick. People say to me “oh, I just want him to behave, I don’t need a circus dog.” But if your dog has mental energy to burn, you can choose to focus that energy on barking/digging/chewing/pulling, or you can focus it on your dog learning to get you a drink from the fridge on command. Which sounds better? Besides, a trick training session uses so much brain power that fifteen minutes of learning a trick is as exhausting to a dog as a thirty minute jog, so it’s a great time saver.
Train your dog to focus on you. A lot of bad behaviors involve the dog focusing on something else—a cat, another dog, strangers, shoes. All of this can be fixed if you reward your dog for looking at you instead. Your dog can’t look at you and chase a cat, or look at you and growl at strangers, so it is a great alternative behavior.
If you are still having problems, then it is time to consult a trainer. In rare cases, the dog may need medication to help soothe extreme fear and anxieties. This is only really necessary in extreme situations, and studies show that meds don’t work long term unless combined with a good training program.
When treating behavioral problems in dogs, would you say the owners need to also be trained? What kind of behaviors do you often encounter in pet owners who have dogs with behavioral issues?
Definitely! Three quarters of my job is training people, not the dogs! There are a lot of common mistakes that people make, like free-feeding their dog or treating the leash like a marionette string, that often need to be addressed.
I wouldn’t say that the dog’s behavior is ever the owner’s fault, but it takes knowledge and experience to know how to handle these behaviors when they happen, and people don’t just instinctively know how to handle a leash or attract their dog’s attention. It has to be learned, like everything in life.
One of the most important things I do is help them change their attitude. When I come to a home, the mindset is usually “help us stop X from happening.” I have to help them see that it is much easier to redirect a behavior than just stop it. Behaviors have to be replaced. If your dog is going to have to stop barking at other dogs, you need to train him to do something else instead, such as watching you or sitting politely. People want to wave a magic wand and simply make the problem go away, but the reality is that in order to turn a bad behavior into a good one, you and your dog are both going to have to make some changes and you are going to have to coach your dog to help him understand what you want him to do instead.
But the biggest thing I need to do is help owners rediscover the joy in their relationship with their dog. So many people just don’t know how to enjoy their dog, beyond cuddling on the couch at night. They spend the rest of the day in a battle of wills, and their struggles exhaust them and drain enjoyment from the relationship. I love to help them discover how much fun it is to exercise and play with and train their dog, to help them find the joy in a relationship where they and their dog are on the same team, working with each other instead of against each other.
Once you can do that, many behavior problems tend to melt away.