By Ansie Minnaar
Back when all dogs were wild, actions like chewing, scent-marking, barking, chasing, jumping and biting weren’t an issue. Now that dogs are part of human families, these natural behaviours can become problem behaviours. That means we have to shape a dog’s natural behaviour so it is acceptable in our home, for our children, our other pets, our friends and neighbours and deliverymen and clients if your dog goes to work with you.
A myriad of factors contribute towards behaviour including genetics, early life experiences, and the extent and nature of owner engagement. Fear is your worst enemy. If your dog is predisposed towards fear due to its genetics, then a long, loving path of behaviour modification and management lies ahead of you. Not always easy but very rewarding when you advance down the road, one small step at a time, towards a happy tail-wagging dog who can face the world and love being in it more.
Early life experiences, and the extent and nature of owner engagement are entirely in your hands. It is natural for dogs to fear the unknown so an introduction to all novel sights and sounds as a young puppy and “shaping” their engagement with encouragement and rewards will go a long way to preventing most undesirable behaviour issues. Early socialization is important so that the young dog is exposed to many different people, animals and situations, minimizing the risk of a phobia developing. For example, make your first visit to the vet a simple social visit to get a feel for the clinic and meet the veterinary staff with lots of happy voices and treats.
Early socialization, from the day you get your puppy up to 14 weeks, is a critical stage in the development of a mentally happy, well adjusted, adult dog that has learnt to cope well in all situations. Continued socializing throughout your dog’s life will hone these social skills into a life-long asset. Just a note of caution: socialization actually means one-on-one engagement, a meeting, not just passing by. So, it is not enough to pass by other dogs on the beach or strange people across the road; or hearing cars or motorbikes or trucks or coffee machines from miles away; or experiencing forests, streams, the sea, swimming pools, restaurants, shopping centres and more from the safety of the car. Everything your dog will experience in its time with you should be introduced in the first 6 weeks with you – a one-on-one introduction with happy vibes and treats. You are aiming to give your pup a good experience so that next time he sees/hears/smells that “thing” he will look forward to it and cope well.
Finally, the extent and nature of owner involvement is vital for what we might term “good manners” or what is socially acceptable behaviour from a dog. I believe knowledge is the key. If you understand how your dog thinks and learns, and you understand your dog’s natural instincts, you will be able to communicate and train effectively. Harsh training can result in symptoms that are translated into behaviour issues. If you put the fear of god into your dog for doing something “wrong” this will impede their ability to absorb and grasp any learning and could result in aggression. If you lovingly never leave your puppy on its own, the result could be separation anxiety. One key lesson for a puppy to master is how to be content with being alone. If you only ever punish for “bad” behaviour and never reward for “good” behaviour, don’t expect your pup to know the difference. And if you greet puppy like a long lost friend and happily pat and encourage the endearing jumping up against you, don’t be surprised if your adult dog still greets you the same way. Not fun if it’s a Great Dane. And if you don’t give your pup some mental and physical stimulation, don’t be surprised if your irrigation system is rearranged or you find new beds in your garden. These issues are all in your hands.
Dominance is very important in canine society. In fact, most of the serious behavioural problems you have with your dog may stem from the way your dog perceives the power structure with you. Yes, YOU. If your dog believes he is the “top dog” in your house, he might try to assert his “rights” as such. This can also motivate fighting with other pets. When dogs fight, it can be quite frightening and dangerous for all involved. My advice would be to call in an animal behaviourist urgently to help you.
I often do a home visit a few days after puppy arrives, to arm the new owners with some insights into the doggy mind and how best to deal with puppy when faced with the various “typical” puppy issues. With older dogs the issues might have developed into habitual behaviour and may take a few more sessions.
The one constant is, you will need to look deep to match the pure devotion a pet can offer. So, do right by your pets.