Why Dogs Do What They Do

  • JUMPING FOR GREETINGS – Pups learn to jump up when they’re in the litter. They jump up to elicit food from their dams by licking at their mouths. They learn very early that jumping up gains attention.  When they leave the litter, they learn that jumping up on us also gains attention. BUT… any attention they get for jumping on us becomes reinforced, whether we’re petting them, talking to them, screaming at them, kneeing them in the chest, etc.  Any behavior that gets reinforced will increase and get stronger with practice (aka “positive reinforcement”).  Your dog can be trained to greet you and/or other people politely as long as  you require that he sits for all greetings when people come into your home, or when people approach him during walks, or anytime someone comes toward him for a greeting. It does take a lot of practice!
  • BARKING AT THE DOORBELL –  Many dogs learn to “alert bark” when they hear the doorbell. Some dogs will take this behavior over the top if we teach them that the sound of the doorbell gets people in the house all excited. We run to the door excitedly, we shout out “who is it??”  So the dog learns very early to associate the sound of the doorbell as a reason to run toward it because everyone else is doing it too. Many dogs will become overly excited when they hear the phone ring too, because our behavior is very similar when we get a call and run to the phone. 

Now, if the barking happens and it gets on your nerves, and you wind up shouting at the dog to “shut up!” or “be quiet” and so the dog thinks we’re barking right along with him! That’s when we see in increase in the intensity of the barking. You can teach your dog to stop barking by saying “thank you” or “quiet”. But he must BE quiet when you train this verbal cue!

Dogs should NOT be the main greeter at the door. This actually creates a lot of stress in them because they can’t handle this situation very well and this also causes more barking. We wind up holding their collars to keep them back and that, in itself, creates frustration. Your dog can be trained to “go to your spot, lie down and stay” until you release him to greet someone. Remember that practice makes perfect, so if your dog is doing something at the door that you don’t like, each time he gets to successfully practice it, he’s getting better at it! Do yourself a big favor and get a professional to come and help you with this issue.

  • DEMAND BARKING – If your dog is barking in your face in order to get your attention, you will be reinforcing his bad behavior even if you just look at him! If you want to extinguish this behavior, turn your back and pretend he’s not in the room until he stops barking for at least 5 seconds! When he stops barking, you can either interact with him or just go about your business.  Be aware that the barking may get worse before it gets better. Consistency is critically important in all of your training.  If you give attention just sometimes when he barks at you, the barking will get much stronger as well if he is jumping, pawing at you, etc. because you’re randomly reinforcing the bad behaviors you don’t like ( known as a “slot machine principle”).
  • BARKING AT PEOPLE/DOGS DURING WALKS – This is not an easy behavior to give an answer for because it depends on the dog’s emotional state at the time he’s doing this.  Some dogs are not well socialized and so they bark at people or other dogs because they’re afraid that something bad will happen to them.  Some dogs bark at people or other dogs because they get so excited to greet them, and then they are restrained on the leash, which causes leash frustration, which can then become leash aggression. Barking then becomes an outlet for that frustration. Many of these dogs are fine once the leash is taken off. They can play with another dog or greet a person in a very friendly manner.  However, without the assistance of a professional, I would not recommend trying to fix this on your own.

BARKING WHEN PEOPLE/DOGS WALK BY THE HOUSE –  If you have a Rottweiler or a German Shepherd or other protection breed, I would expect this behavior to occur.  However, all dogs can take up this behavior for many reasons. They may be under-socialized and feel threatened when people or other dogs are anywhere near their home or yard, even if nobody has ever caused them any harm. Allowing your dog access to windows and doors where they can bark all day long will create more territorial behavior and negative emotions. Your dogs are not happy when they’re barking out the door or window! This becomes “barrier frustration” as does allowing your dog to run and bark at your fence line. The more they practice this behavior, the angrier they become. Any dog that might get out of the fence or get out of the door they’ve been barking at can wind up behaving aggressively toward people or other dogs on the outside! Prevent this behavior! You are positively reinforcing a very inappropriate behavior.

  • DIGGING –Dogs that do a lot of digging can be bored out of their minds, or they hear moles and other animals underneath the ground or they’re wanting to lie in a cool bed. If you  have a Jack Russell Terrier or a Dachsund or other terrier breeds that are bred to hunt vermin, your dog will always want to hunt small prey. Instead of screaming at your dog to stop digging, try buying a child’s sand box or a kiddie pool and bury some goodies in sand so he has something to hunt for and will become satisfied by doing his instinctive behaviors.  Every few days bury new and different squeaky toys, treats and biscuits in the digging pit. Every few days, take them out and put some new things in the sand. Keep him guessing about what interesting items he might be finding that day. More often than not, this becomes a wonderful way of protecting your lawn and garden. Dogs that dig because they’re bored need a lot more exercise and a variety of activities, not mindless, unstructured activity like running around the yard for hours.

Another way to satisfy the digger is to give him a variety of ways to hunt for his food. You can fill a Kong toy with his kibble and let him eat his meals out of the Kong. Here are some names of other food-release toys: Buster Cube, Molecule Ball, Busy Buddy, Twist and Treat, Tug a Jug, Kong Wobbler, etc.  Nobody says that a dog must eat his meals out of a bowl. 

You can also teach your dog to hunt for his kibble by tossing it all over the lawn. Then release him to find the kibble. He’ll come inside happy and tired from his half hour of hunting 🙂

  • STEALING LAUNDRY AND OTHER ITEMS THAT YOU VALUE – Dogs love stealing laundry items because (a) they generally stink really good, and (b) when they steal your stuff, they get everyone to chase them all over the house, and that’s what they want.  It’s rare that a dog doesn’t alert you to the fact that he’s got something in his mouth, and then runs off with his loot. Aren’t they clever?  They’ve gotten you to play a “catch me if you can game.”  They’ve succeeded in getting you to pay very close attention to them.  If your dog steals a sock or your bra and he’s not eating them or actually ingesting them, the best way to extinguish this behavior is to remove ALL attention for it! Pretend you don’t even notice he’s got something. Read a book, keep watching TV, or get up and leave the room. In a very short time, your dog will get bored and realize his little game isn’t working anymore.  It will eventually disappear IF you are consistent and PATIENT about ignoring him.

If your dog steals valuable items or if he steals things that he’s actually eating and swallowing, you’ll have no choice but to retrieve those things and get them away from your dog for his health’s sake. ALWAYS make a food exchange for that item!!! But… for his sake and the sake of your valuables, KEEP THEM OUT OF HIS REACH!  You need to pretend that your dog is a 1 or 2 year old toddler, because that’s about the maturity level of all adult dogs. You would never leave dangerous things lying around the house for a small child to find and get hurt with or swallow, right? Be as diligent in keeping harmful things out of the reach of your four-legged attention hog!

  • STEALING FOOD FROM THE TRASH OR GARBAGE CAN –  If you’re a dog, then food is a primary reinforcer for you. Survival is all about food and hunting for food. Here is where management becomes very important in preventing a behavior you don’t want from becoming reinforced and habitual. Keep your dog away from your cooking area anytime you are preparing meals or someone is eating.  With training, you can teach your dog to “go to your mat and stay” right in the entranceway of the kitchen. Set him down with a frozen filled Kong or a bully stick or other long-term chewie to keep him occupied while you’re cooking and eating meals. At no time should ANY dog be permitted around the appliances in your kitchen when meals are being cooked.  If you haven’t taught him to lie down on his own mat yet, you can find an appropriate area to tether him w/ a harness so he can’t move too far from his mat.  If you don’t want your dog to learn how to hunt in your kitchen, prevent the behavior from happening ever again.  Remember that practice makes perfect! Each time your dog learns that there is food in the trash or on the floor, he will be right there to scarf it up.  Another training cue that is very helpful in this scenario is a LEAVE IT cue.  Train your dog!
  • DOGS THAT DON’T LIKE BEING PICKED UP, HAVING THEIR EARS EXAMINED OR MEDICATED, HAVING THEIR PAWS HANDLED OR BEING PETTED OVER THEIR HEADS – Dogs can develop handling issues when handling is not done enough when they are younger than 8 weeks old. If you took your dog to a good puppy kindergarten class, your instructor should have had everyone doing many different types of handling so that your dog could accept a vet doing a physical examination or a groomer brushing, drying, clipping and cutting his nails.  Many people adopt dogs from shelters or rescues who have handling issues because those poor dogs did not get exposed to enough physical handling by their original owners. Also, some of these issues are the fault of a breeder who did not handle the puppies much before they were sold (puppy mill breeders)!

There is a process called “desensitization and countercondition,” which is part of a behavior modification program.  Those dogs that don’t like certain parts of their bodies touched or they don’t like when people reach over their heads can be taught to accept these things when a behavior consultant creates a specific program to get him to feel more positive about what he already has a negative emotion toward.  We pair up the negative with something the dog sees as a positive (food!).  Little by little the dog begins to associate the negative (having his paws handled) with getting delicious and high-value food when he’s touched on his paws.  With practice the dog learns to feel good about it.

  • INGESTING NON-EDIBLE ITEMS (E.G., ROCKS, DIRT, SOCKS, PLASTICS, MULCH, ETC.).  This is a difficult behavior to stop.  It’s also difficult to prevent. There are rocks on this earth, there is dirt everywhere, there are children’s plastic toys in the house and you only have two eyes to see what’s going on with everybody everyday!  The only thing that you can really do is manage your dog’s environment to prevent him from gaining access to those things that he’s actually swallowing.  If you don’t, you may be faced with a very dangerous and expensive surgery ($2,000.00) to remove a stomach or intestinal blockage. If your dog likes rocks, you may have to put a muzzle on him whenever he’s around rocks!  You also need to teach your dog a LEAVE IT cue by playing a game that teaches this! Again, a reminder that your dog is like a 1 or 2 year old that loves putting things in his mouth.  But once this starts to happen, it’s becomes habitual quickly! Prevent, prevent, prevent.
  • DOG IGNORES ITS OWNERS AND/OR WON’T COME WHEN CALLED – Dogs that do not see their owners as important enough to pay attention to do need training, as do the owners! There are many reasons dogs ignore their owners. They also ignore there names.  They never come when they’re called. They are just in tuned to their own selves and doing their own thing because (a) they’ve not ever been taught to pay attention, (b) they hear the human voice and it sounds angry, (c) or they associate their owners voice to mean, “all my fun ends when I hear my name.”  Please do not think of your dog as being “dominant” because he’s ignoring you.  You could also be competing with the environment.  If you have a terrier or a beagle, or any dog that’s been bred to be independent, you ARE competing with the environment. You need to become way more interesting and exciting that any squirrel or rabbit.  You also need to provide a motivator that will help your dog learn that you hold the keys to all the good things in his life. And… you need to reward your dog for paying any attention to you, whether you ask for his attention or he voluntarily offers it. Instead of punishing your dog for inattentiveness, make sure you reward him like crazy for any appropriate attention that he does show you.  Reward that behavior with praise, or a treat, or a toss of his ball, or by petting, and you’ll get more of it. Also, begin training with a trainer who uses motivational methods and can teach you how to do some attention exercises to get you started.  Your trainer should also teach you how to get your dog to come to you no matter what’s going on. 
  • EXCESSIVE LICKING – Whether the dog is licking you excessively or himself, this can become a neurotic compulsive behavior if you don’t interrupt the behavior before it goes on for more than a second or two. Generally, it starts because the dog is feeling stressed by something, and licking makes him feel better until that stressor goes away. But with continued practice, it then becomes a neurotic habit. If your dog is constantly licking you, remove yourself from him. Just walk away, but don’t say anything to him. If you’re consistent, he will learn that licking you makes you leave him.  Hopefully this will teach him to stop it.  If he’s licking himself, he will develop an acral lick-granuloma. This is a nasty skin condition for which there is no cure!
  • HOUSETRAINING ISSUES – There are certain breeds that have been shown to be difficult to housetrain. Chihuahuas, Bichons and many of the toy-breed dogs are more difficult to housetrain because they have very tiny bladders and they are very excitable dogs. The more excited a dog becomes, the more urine he’ll produce. Management is key and good housetraining procedures are absolutely a must. If you’re punishing your dog for having accidents, you will only create MORE accidents by causing more stress for your dog. He will not learn to potty in the yard when you shout, “what did you do?” and point your finger at him.  He certainly will never become housetrained if you rub his nose in his excrement!  I’ve never heard of any mom smearing a baby’s diaper in her baby’s face to teach her to go to the toilet.  Basically, you will need to take your dog outside to his “toilet area” onleash.  Tell him to “go potty” and when he starts to go, remain perfectly quiet. When he’s finished, you need to give him a very delicious treat within ½ second of his getting up out of his squat to reward his behavior right there on the spot.  Quite frequently, people cause more accidents in the house when they bring the dog into the house right away and THEN give him a treat.  Smart puppy learns to hurry up and pee as fast as possible because YOU want him to come back inside very quickly.  So puppy or rescue dog pees or poops just enough to release pressure, and then finishes peeing or pooping after he gets his treat in the house! Never punish by hollering, hitting, pointing or scowling at your dog when he has an accident. Your dog will quickly learn that he can’t go in front of you because you can’t handle it when he has to potty. I can’t tell you how many 1 and 2 year old dogs I’ve met who REFUSE to potty in front of their owners!
  • PLAYS TOO ROUGH WITH PEOPLE – Dogs learn to play too aggressively because someone has played with the dog by roughhousing! The dog learned that mouthing and body slamming and jumping on the person is what that person wants, so they continue to do it and become very positively reinforced for doing it. In order to get your dog to play appropriately, scale your play behavior down and leave out the high excitement of wrestling.  Play fetch, hide and seek, and play-training games. Incorporate obedience into your games by interrupting all play and asking him to sit or lie down. Then resume your play.  You can even play tug of war IF you require good manners during the game. If your dog even touches his teeth to your skin, you need to end the game and remove all your attention from the dog for at least 30-60 seconds. Don’t play tug with  him for several hours after any mouthy behavior.
  • SHY/FEARFUL WITH PEOPLE – This issue cannot be explained away easily.  Shyness is a genetically inherited trait. Fearful behavior can be a result of shyness and/or insufficient socialization by the time the puppy reaches 12 weeks. Anything after 11-12 weeks and the owners are doing remedial work! With both shyness and fearful behavior, people need to realize that the dog is NOT being dominant. He is scared out of his mind. When he is exposed to something or someone that he’s afraid of, he can wind up having a panic attack. Panic attacks can look like aggressive behavior because his brain becomes adrenalized quickly. If your dog behaves in this manner, seek professional help!  If you have a dog who is clearly telling you “I can’t handle being near people, other dogs, or something in the environment.” Quickly remove your dog to an area that can help him feel safer and calmer. You cannot force a dog to accept something that he’s afraid of! This behavior is absolutely not a punishable offense!!
  • PLAY-BITING FROM A DOG 6 MONTHS AND OLDER –  All mouthy behavior after a dog acquires his adult teeth is no longer “play-biting.”  Putting teeth on skin is an inappropriate behavior and should never be tolerated.  Roughhousing with dogs causes mouthy behavior because the dog has not been taught to keep his teeth in his mouth.  Dogs that place their teeth over someone’s wrist are not playing – they are controlling the human.  Remove your attention immediately from the dog WITHOUT using any negative emotions. You can use a word like, “timeout” or “too bad” or “ouch” and then leave.  Stay away from your dog for at least 30 seconds.  When you return ask for some obedience and then life goes back to normal. If he repeats the behavior anytime soon, remove your attention for 60 seconds. Put your dog on a “Say Please Program” and definitely teach him obedience and use it for the rest of his life.
  • BOLTING OUT THE DOOR –  If you have an escape artist in your home, you need to tighten up on your management. First and foremost is training! If someone is going to be opening the front door, they need to first check on the location of your dog before opening it.  You need to work on obedience cues, like “go to your mat, lie down and stay.”  You also need to work on teaching your dog to come when called, so that if he should get out, you can get him to come back immediately.  Everytime a dog escapes to romp and explore the neighborhood or to hunt, he is being positively reinforced for this behavior. He is learning that this is a good behavior and it is acceptable because YOU are allowing him to do it and he is being successful at it.  Prevent all bad behavior and reward him for doing all appropriate behaviors, like staying when the door is open.  Training is very important with a dog like this.  If your dog is escape artist, make sure he’s getting enough physical AND mental exercise! CAUTION: NEVER PUNISH HIM FOR RUNNING OFF! IF YOU DO, HE’LL LEARN NEVER TO COME WHEN YOU CALL HIM BECAUSE “YOU ARE DANGEROUS!!
  • SEPARATION ANXIETY –  This is an emotional disorder.  Depending on the severity, your dog might need to be seen by a veterinarian.  In severe cases, vets can recommend meds specifically for this disorder. You should also work with a behavior consultant who can create a behavior modification program to work with your dog to feel more comfortable when being left alone.  Here are some books to purchase which deal with this behavior:
  • Separation Distress and Dogs, by James O’Heare
  • I’ll be Home Soon by Patricia B. McConnell Ph.D.
  • TERRITORIAL BEHAVIOR IN THE HOUSE AND/OR CAR – Seek professional help from a certified behavior consultant or your vet for this behavior as it can lead to aggressive behavior towards both people and dogs, depending on what or to whom the dog reacts.  A dog that becomes territorial sees a threat to himself or to his humans where no threat actually exists. 

Good luck!