Skip NavigationSkip to Primary Content

Behavioral problems in dogs

Dog at home laying down

Back in history it was very uncommon for people to take medication for mental issues. People that were treated medically were considered crazy. Going to a psychiatrist was the last resort and was done secretly and accompanied by feelings of of shame.

Nowadays things have changed, people are aware of the importance of good mental health. Our modern society is striving to improve the quality of life, hence there is an increase in the number of people seeking help and counseling.

Today it is common and legitimate to use medications not only for severe mental problems but even for mild mood disorders. Today, depression and anxiety and other mental disorders are talked about openly and the medications for such issues are not considered different than any other medications taken for any other medical problem.

Veterinary medicine has also changed and developed over the years. We now know that pets also suffer from mental problems that alter their own lives along with their owner’s life. Many of the dog’s behavioural disorders are misinterpreted by the owners as mischief. This behaviour usually annoys and aggravates their owners. This results in an anger reaction of the owner that may exacerbate the dog’s problem.  This vicious cycle can be resolved by understanding the dog’s behaviour and the management options.

The most common behavioural problem in dogs is separation anxiety. Separation anxiety in dogs is usually manifested by destructive and inappropriate behaviour when the dog gets left alone even in a familiar environment.  The most common complaints I hear from owners are that the dog constantly howls, barks or whines, destroys by chewing various objects in the house including furniture, doors and windows. Some dogs urinate and defecate in the house despite being house trained. These dogs will usually express extreme excitement when the owner returns home.

This condition is extremely irritating for the dog’s owner but it is crucial to understand the nature of this behaviour. These are symptoms of severe stress. Dogs are social creatures, they consider the family as their “pack” in which they are an equal member. It is not natural for dogs to be separated from their owners and some dogs get very distressed by it. When they express destructive behaviour it is not done out of vindictiveness, it is their way of trying to free themselves. Soiling the house may represent a sign of severe emotional distress.

Because we can not converse with the dog, the diagnosis of separation anxiety is tentative and is done by ruling out other medical problems that may result in a similar behaviour. Puppies may show destructive behaviour as a part of teething and not due to separation anxiety.

Punishing the dog will not help to solve the problem. On the contrary, when you punish your dog when you return home, it may associate the punishment with your return rather than with the mischief it caused. This may stress it even more when you leave home the next time.

The management of this condition is not straightforward. This problem will not go away on its own. It requires perseverance in a process that is meant to ensure the dog that when you are leaving you are not deserting it and you will be back. I strongly recommend to the owners of dogs who suffer from behavioural problems to consult a behavioural specialist. The treatment process usually involves desensitization training in which the dog learns to cope with periods of separation that are gradually extended. It is also important to create a safe area for the dog  in which it will feel secure and its ability to cause damage will be limited. The key is to confine the dog without making it feel isolated.  Leaving an object with your smell such as shirt may help the dog feel closer to you.

Behavioural modifications are available for dogs. These medications are similar to human antidepressants and anxiolytics. Most people find these medications very effective in reducing their dog’s stress level without sedating them.

Another common mental problem is OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). This is a repetitive behaviour. It can range anywhere between constantly running back and forward on the exact same path up to a destructive behaviour of either animate objects or even themselves (obsessive licking for an example). Some of these obsessive behaviours can be harmless, but in other cases they can be successfully managed with medical treatment.

Owning a dog with a behavioural disorder will affect both the dog’s and the owner’s quality of life. There is no need to suffer any longer. If your dog is trashing your house or showing other mischievous behaviour, it is not done necessarily to spite you, it is very possibly a call for help.