News Column

'Decoding Your Dog,' Author Explains Behavior

January 7, 2014

By Steve Dale, Special for USA TODAY

Two veterinarians share what they know about animal behavior.
Two veterinarians share what they know about animal behavior.

When it comes to animal behavior, everyone is a self-professed expert.

"You must be the 'alpha dog' in your house, showing your dog who's boss" is one common misconception, say veterinary behaviorists.

Setting the record straight is one reason the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists has written the new book Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones, out this week (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). It's edited by two veterinarians who specialize in pet behavior, Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi, and myself.

It might be that more dogs die as a result of perceived bad behavior than all cancers combined. When a dog has a serious behavior problem, the human-animal bond may fracture. When that happens, the pet may land in a shelter. Avoiding behavior problems or having appropriate tools to deal with them will save pets' lives -- which is the goal of this book.

Though they write for scientific journals and veterinary professionals, this is the first time veterinary behaviorists have written an in-depth guide for the public. The 21 contributing authors offer science-based methods to deal with a wide array of problems, from dogs happily jumping up to greet guests at the door to lunging at other dogs on walks.

Here are just a few of the book's nuggets of advice:

Q: Do dogs bite their owners or other familiar people because they are competing for "alpha status"?

A: No. Most often, dogs bite for defensive reasons that are not related to a social hierarchy.

Q: Do dogs get on sofas, rush ahead on walks or jump on people to be dominant?

A: Again, no. Dogs favor couches for napping like we do, because they are soft and because they smell like their favorite people. Dogs rush ahead on walks because they're eager to explore the world, those smells are exciting, and people are too darn slow. Dogs are happy to greet people and like to jump because it's the only way to greet them face to face and because they are beyond exuberant.

Q: Do dogs purposely urinate in the house or otherwise behave badly because of separation anxiety?

A: Like all behavioral problems, dogs with separation anxiety aren't being spiteful. They're not intentionally punishing you for your departure; they are just attempting to cope with your separation. Like many behavior problems, an appropriate diagnosis is most important. Without veterinary input, people may assume the problem is separation anxiety, when the dog might be under-exercised and/or bored. Perhaps the dog is piddling in the house when you are away primarily due to an undiagnosed medical condition. Some dogs were never reliably taught to be home alone (despite what their owners believe). If this is a senior dog, has the dog "forgotten" house-training? Or does the dog actually suffer from separation anxiety? And suffer is the right word -- these dogs are suffering. Often pharmacological intervention, combined with behavioral therapy, is most helpful and most humane.

Q: If dogs are anxious, do they need training?

A:Fears and anxieties have nothing whatsoever to do with how well a dog is trained or intelligence. In fact, if you have a dog who is pacing (perhaps a dog is fearful of an oncoming thunderstorm), and you tell her "lie down," and she does, while she may no longer be pacing, she may still be very anxious. Anxiety doesn't go away just because you're not seeing it. One of the most potentially damaging myths is the idea that a dog should be punished for anxious or fearful behavior. The idea stems from the beliefs that the dog is "being bad" or "trying to be dominant" by not listening when you try to tell the dog to stop a certain behavior (pacing, whining, etc.). Using punishment will only make the animal more anxious and fearful in the long run.

Q: My dog almost seems like he has Alzheimer's. What's up?

A:Senior dogs can suffer from a condition similar to Alzheimer's disease in people, referred to as canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. To determine if a dog has CCDS, the first step is a medical exam to rule out a medical explanation causing or contributing to the problem. While there is no fountain of youth, the good news is that old age is not a disease. Especially when discovered early, there are things that can be done to help slow the disease's progress, including nutritional supplements, appropriate exercise and teaching an old dog new tricks.

Steve Dale is a nationally syndicated pet journalist, book author, radio host and certified animal behavior consultant.


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