When their dog misbehaves, most people assume that means they need training. It might surprise you that, as a professional dog trainer, my first recommendation to people isn’t always to train. Sometimes, there are simpler solutions to behavior problems. Other times, there are issues at play that can’t be solved by training alone. Without first considering the whole picture, you may find your training effort is wasted.
Address Their Body
Training works on your dog’s mind, but if their body isn’t cared for, training won’t get you very far. Physical factors can’t be overlooked or disregarded when addressing unwanted behavior.
Pain, Discomfort, and Medical Issues
A dog in pain or feeling uncomfortable is never going to be their best self. Even subtle or mild medical issues can also lead to major behavior concerns. The dog may not show obvious signs of pain or discomfort. A dog may happily play fetch for an hour, and then snap at a child that evening because they are sore. The problem behavior may not even seem like it could be physical. When working with dogs suffering from separation anxiety, I’ve seen how stomach problems or sore legs can make the anxiety worse.
Sudden behavior change should send you straight to the vet. If your dog has a history of health issues, make sure they are well-managed and regularly review ongoing treatment with your vet.
Too little sleep or rest can lead to irritability, decreased tolerance to frustration, lack of impulse control, aggression, and health issues. Dogs need an average of 12-14 hours of sleep a day (puppies can be up to 20 hours a day). While they don’t sleep in one big chunk, like humans, they will still suffer, if they don’t get enough.
Make sure your dog is getting opportunities to rest and nap throughout the day. If your house is very busy, give your dog a quiet space to retreat to. If they go to daycare, make sure they are given regular breaks from play. If you notice your dog’s behavior is worse after a long day out, or the day after, consider whether more rest is needed.
Much like with humans, we know diet matters but the best doggie diet is not clearly understood. While there are plenty of people with strong opinions about exactly what your dog should eat, science is still working on the truth of the matter. What is definitely true is that diet can affect behavior. What is probably true is that diet details matter more or less for different dogs and different dogs do best with different diets.
I highly encourage you to learn more from people with expertise and education in pet nutrition (not necessarily other owners or pet store employees). Cummings Veterinary Medical Center has a website where you can learn from board-certified veterinary nutritionists. Linda Case has an MS in Canine/Feline Nutrition and writes about what science knows about feeding dogs at https://thesciencedog.com/.
This one you’ve probably already considered. Dogs need appropriate physical exercise to be on their best behavior. Just remember, “appropriate” doesn’t always mean more. Remember the importance of rest. A tired dog might be a good dog, but an overtired dog is a different story.
Explore whether more or less exercise helps your dog. Also, explore different types of exercise. A walk around the neighborhood is rarely enough exercise for a large or young dog, but can be paired with mental exercise (see below). Swapping a walk for fetch, tug, hiking, or running may be beneficial.
Address Their Mind
Now that you’ve checked in with your dog’s body, how is their mind doing? There are two big things to consider here.
The mind needs exercise, just like the body. Mental exercise, or “enrichment”, includes problem solving, experiencing new things, using their senses, and more. A lack of mental enrichment can lead to boredom, frustration, overexcitement, and stress. Increased mental exercise often packs more punch, in terms of improving behavior, than increased physical exercise.
Easy options to add to your dog’s life include feeding with food puzzles, allowing lots of sniffing on walks, exploring new places, and training. Yes, I know this is all about how training might not be your first step, but in this case, I’m also including training for “fun”, like tricks.
Your dog can’t learn if they are scared. You probably understand that and wouldn’t try to train a dog who is scared of fireworks on the Fourth of July. You also need to identify and address less obvious forms of anxiety or stress in your dog’s life. Many behavior problems are due to these things anyway, so helping your dog feel safe will help their behavior, too.
Familiarize yourself with the signs of stress in dogs, so you can notice if your dog is uncomfortable. Then, help them feel safe. Two good resources for learning about dog body language are iSpeakDog and Fear Free Happy Homes.
What is Success?
Finally, before embarking on a training journey, clarify what success would look like for you. There may be more than one way to be happy.
Sometimes, you can set your dog’s environment up to prevent unwanted behaviors, and thus skip training. Keep food off the counter and you don’t need to train your dog to ignore temptation. Close the curtains on the front window and you don’t need to train your dog not to bark at passersby.
Of course, many situations can’t be managed forever without any training. But, you might find that your training list (and list of problem behaviors) quickly shrinks with some management. You can learn more here.
Is a bit of barking at the doorbell the end of the world? Can you forgive your dog for sneaking onto the sofa whenever they get the chance? Might it be okay for your dog to skip greeting other dogs on leash, if it rarely goes well?
You can decide what rules you want for your house, but accepting your dog’s natural “doggieness”, as well as their unique personality, will make your life, and theirs, a lot happier. Dogs bark, chew, dig, and sniff. Give your dog appropriate outlets for their natural interests and they will be less likely to do them in inappropriate ways. If your dog isn’t interested in making new friends, fill their life with the things they do like. It’s okay to not fix things that aren’t really a problem.
The caveats here are behaviors that are a risk to other people or animals and when your dog’s wellbeing is at risk because of physical safety concerns or fear/stress. These shouldn’t be accepted and need to be managed and addressed through training.
Now Do You Need Training?
Checking in on your dog’s body and mind, as well as being clear about what you’re expecting of them, may have solved your “training” concern. If so, congrats! Of course, there are many behavior concerns that still require training, after your dog’s needs are met. Training can also be a way of expanding your dog’s life and having fun with them.
So, now that you’ve laid the foundation, let’s get training! Schedule a private behavior consultation to address your dog’s unique needs.