I have to start this article by saying that I'm not an animal behavior expert. My first formal education on the subject was in college and vet school in the late 70's and early 80's. Lately I have learned a lot about behavior mostly by attending avian medicine conferences, since understanding behavior is such an important part of owning (and treating) birds.

Dog with Bad BehaviorThis article is the result of a lecture that my staff was privileged to receive recently. The lecturer, Helen Nicholls, is local and is the owner of No Monkey Business Dog Training. She is a certified professional dog trainer and has been keeping up with this rapidly growing and fascinating area of animal behavior science.

I wrote this article and submitted it too late for last week's paper (thankfully), and since then I have had the article reviewed by several people, including Mary Finlayson, the owner of Finlayson's Pet Care in Concord as well as three veterinarians who specialize in pet behavior, one of which (Dr. Myrna Milani) is an ethologist (ethology is the study of animal behavior). I have studied their comments and have spoken to all of them and have revised my thoughts a bit.

First I have to say that I am jumping into a quagmire here. We are dealing with training, and trying to understand dog behavior and sometimes we just want to throw labels around. There is a lot of confusion out there because we are bombarded with opinions from the media, our neighbors, etc., when it comes to this subject, and there are a lot of them. But behavior has become more of a science and most people have not kept up with recent understanding and advances in the field of behavioral science. So, I guess what I'm trying to do is give you my take (that has been reviewed by experts) on behavioral problems, training, and related subjects. I will restrict my comments mostly to dogs in this article; I plan to have a follow-up article to this one if this article provokes a lot of discussion (in the form of emails, letters to the editor, etc.).

Why Does a Dog Misbehave?

You have to admit that that there are a lot of animals out there that are behaving badly. We've all seen it. There are plenty of dogs and other pets that aren't very nice. They bite; they bark; they growl; they attack; they tear up our stuff and do other bad things. One of the most common reasons that dogs are put to sleep is because of behavioral problems. Therefore a serious behavioral problem that is ignored is the equivalent of a life-threatening disease. But here's the thing — it's often the result of mishandling of the dog or improper training or outright neglect, which is often based on a lack of education on the subject. The owners just don't have the tools or know-how to properly raise their pet. It happens all the time.

Dog Breed (Genetics) and Environment

I have to backtrack a bit here, because it is important to look at genetics a bit. I don't want to blame all behavior issues on the owners. First of all, as with just about anything else, the makings of a good pet is a combination of its genetic makeup and its environment. There are bad dogs from the get-go. So, do your homework before you get a puppy. Different breeds have different needs. That is obvious; some need more exercise; some tend to be more likely to guard, or bark, etc. But also, there is a huge variety of breeders out there. Some breeders will not consider the temperament of the dogs they are breeding at all, and they continue to produce puppies that have problems due to poor genes. You can find a good breeder through the American Kennel Club, or through specific breed groups, and you can look at pedigrees. And always try to get one with a good temperament — that's always a good start.

A Puppy is a Commitment

Part of responsible pet ownership is learning how to raise them, and it isn't always easy, especially when they start out with problems. I see puppies with behavioral problems on a regular basis; sometimes their problems go away and sometimes they get much worse. It all depends on how the owners deal with the problem. Unfortunately, all too often they don't want to admit that there is a problem (denial) or they just hope it will go away on its own.

You probably know what they say about having a baby — about how easy it is. It just takes two people, with no practice (and they don't even have to get dressed!). All they have to do is show up and, well you know the rest. They just have to do one thing, which comes very naturally. And then they can mess up very badly when it comes to raising that child. The same is true of owning a pet of any kind. Some of them are easier than others. Some breeds of dogs and some other pets are easy to care for and they generally behave normally no matter what you do.

Just like people, all dogs and other animals are born innocent. These animals are born with a healthy brain (unless genetically screwed up), and for the first 6-8 weeks, they learn from their parents and siblings (the litter). Once they leave their siblings and are relocated to a new home, everything changes depending on the skills and education and commitment level of the owner — this involves time, money, patience, love, tolerance and education. If things go wrong, behavioral problems can develop and these can get much worse over time, depending on how they are handled.

Dog Training

There are a lot of myths about how to train a pet; there are a lot of dog trainers but unfortunately anyone can claim to be a trainer and they can do more harm than good. It takes a lot of education to become a certified dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist. These represent only a fraction of those who claim to be trainers. It doesn't help when there is a TV show that advocates the use of punishment and harsh training techniques. This TV show and some dog trainers use improper methods, and only show us the ones that appeared to work out positively.

Label the Behavior, Not the Pet

We hear a lot about "dominant" dogs. Well, guess what? Most behaviorists believe that most aggressive dogs are actually fear and/or anxiety based. They are not dominant. Dominant dogs are very rare. There are dogs that are dominant over other dogs, but it isn't quite that simple. Just because a dog is "dominant" over another dog, it doesn't mean that it is a dominant dog. I learned in vet school that there were two kinds of aggression — dominant or submissive, but that is no longer believed. Not only that, but my friend Dr. Milani and others say that you can not label a pet. You can label a behavior, but not the pet. And, it has to be looked at in the context in which it occurred.

Some behaviors that we don't like are actually normal, depending on the situation. One example that comes to mind, that Helen explained to me is the classic situation of the dog who growls at you when you try to take away a toy or its food. Well, actually that is not a dominant behavior — it is fear-based guarding behavior. The dog doesn't want its food or toy taken away. We could say a lot more about that, and whether it's OK, but the bottom line is that it isn't dominance.

Positive Reinforcement vs. Punishment

When it comes to behavioral modification, it's all about positive reinforcement. Any behavior that is positively reinforced will continue, and a behavior that is not reinforced should go away, at least in theory.( However, sometimes we can not fix some of the most severe cases.) Punishment should be only rarely be used, but occasionally it can be. Punishment consists of yelling at or hitting an animal, squirting them with a water bottle, etc. You can say "no," or sometimes make a quick sound that the animal understands, but that isn't very much of a punishment. Treats are a great thing to have at all times whenever you are interacting with your pet. These make great little rewards.

Pet Owners — Choose Leadership over Dominance

Dogs need leadership (not dominance) from their owners, and it needs to be consistent. We will talk more about all of this in our next article, so stay tuned. In the meantime, love your pet and reward their good behaviors and do not reward their bad behaviors, and don't punish them unless you have to.

I highly recommend taking your puppy to obedience classes as soon as you get it. Also, if a problem develops with your dog, seek a trainer or veterinary behaviorist; get two or three opinions if the first and second aren't working. But you will have to be involved — don't expect them to do all the work.

Have a great couple of weeks, and take your dogs out to run in the snow — they love it (except for the tiny ones that get lost in it).