Behavior Problems

aggression | destructiveness | elimination problems | anxiety, phobias, fears | eating disorders | sexual problems | behavior modification program

Introduction: Animal behavior has been a subject of study, speculation, fascination, and frustration to mankind since animals and humans have co-existed. Many practicing veterinarians know a great deal about the behavior of domesticated animals and can help when a behavior problem arises. There are also specialists in animal behavior that are highly skilled and great resources. This section will focus briefly on some of the most common canine behavior problems and therapies.

Because many behavior problems are not the result of just one factor or influence, it is often difficult to specifically identify the cause for the problem. A behavior change can come about as a result of genetic, environmental, hormonal, disease related, and age influences. A given problem may evolve as a result of any number of these influences.

This discussion will not attempt to identify or describe all of the possible behavior problems that can be encountered. This information should be used as a guide and reference if certain problems arise. For specific diagnosis and treatment for behavior disorders, a local veterinarian and/or animal behaviorist will need to be consulted.

Many of the major behavior problems encountered in dogs will fall under one or more of the following broad categories:

  1. Aggression
  2. Destructiveness/Barking
  3. Elimination Problems
  4. Anxiety, Phobias, and Fears
  5. Eating Disorders
  6. Sexual Behavior Problems

Each of these categories will be discussed and specific problems within each category will be identified. Behavior modification tools, such as desensitization, reinforcement, and counterconditioning are described in greater detail below.

  1. Aggression:
    Aggression is probably the most common and the most dangerous behavior problem seen in dogs. Because of the element of danger to people, diagnosis and treatment of canine aggression is very controversial. There are categorized, at the current time, at least twelve different types of aggression seen in dogs. Each type of aggression is unique, although some dogs may exhibit several types of aggression at the same time. For this discussion, six of the most common types of canine aggression will be addressed.
  1. Dominance aggression - This is probably the most common type of aggression seen in pet dogs. Male dogs which begin to manifest the aggressive behavior at social maturity (1 ˝ to 3 years of age), constitute 90% of this group. The aggression is generally directed toward those in the dog’s social circle over which the dog wishes to maintain control; this usually means the dog’s owners or other familiar people. This type of aggression is often associated with some type of direct interaction between a person and the pet. It can occur when a person tries to take the animal’s food bowl away, put on a collar or muzzle, awaken the animal from sleep, or attempt to discipline the dog. Dominant acts which these dogs may demonstrate include snarling, growling, biting, pushing on people blocking doorways, leaning on people, stamping of the feet or snorting in response to a command, staring, "hugs" (where the dog presses it paws to the person’s shoulders), and even putting the head in a person’s lap. However, observation of these behaviors in a pet does not necessarily mean that the pet is dominantly aggressive.

    In general, punishments or attempts to win confrontations with a dominant aggressive dog are discouraged. Dominance aggression tends to worsen with punishment. It is best to avoid eliciting the aggressive behavior and initiate a behavior modification program with the assistance of a trained professional. Dominance aggression may be inheritable and any dog with this type of aggression probably should not be bred. Care should be taken with any animal demonstrating dominance aggression.

  2. Fear/pain aggression - Fear aggression is another extremely common type of aggression in dogs. Fear of a person or another animal may be related to a painful experience or may occur independently of pain. Pain aggression may develop into fear aggression later on as a painful stimulus continues. Typically, fear aggression is manifested with growling, baring of the teeth, tail tucked between the legs, and escape attempts. If cornered and frightened, a normal dog will cower, try to hide, but show no signs of aggression. A dog with fear aggression will stand and face the approacher with the tail between the legs and stare, growl, or bite. Dogs which are in pain (broken leg, chronic arthritis) can be very prone to biting without warning and should be handled carefully.

    Behavior modification tools may be very useful in dealing with a dog exhibiting fear aggression; desensitization is generally the strategy which is most useful. Pain aggression may be more difficult to deal with. In veterinary clinics where a dog is likely to undergo a painful procedure or must endure long term painful medical therapy, it may be impossible to eliminate pain aggression. Physical and/or chemical restraint must be used on a regular basis in veterinary clinics to prevent injury to the veterinary staff. Analgesic (pain killer) therapy is becoming more and more widely used in veterinary medicine and may be very helpful in avoiding pain aggression and in preventing pain aggression from developing into fear aggression. These issues should be addressed with a veterinarian before proceeding with treatments or procedures. Desensitization strategies may also be used for some types of pain aggression. The most common scenario where this is used is in the older dog with chronic low-grade pain (i.e. arthritis, back pain, etc.) that must coexist with small children. The dog can be desensitized to the presence of the children, while the children are taught to be gentle in handling the dog.

  3. Territorial/protective aggression - Territorial aggression is the type of aggression most commonly associated with the presence of a strange person or animal in the yard or home where the dog lives. Most dogs are territorial to an extent and will bark and/or run to the door when a person or animal approaches. Territorial aggression is most problematic when the dog becomes so protective that it will not stop barking or will not allow the visitor to enter. Territories may be stable and permanent (a yard or house), or mobile and seasonal (a car or area where the dog has urine-marked). An important factor regarding territorial aggression in dogs is the absence of aggression when the dog is away from the defended territory. While similar, protective aggression is unique, as the dog selects its owner as the territory to be defended. A dog demonstrating pure protective aggression may be watchful, but tolerant of a visitor to its home until the visitor goes to make physical contact with the dog’s owner. Any dog reacting to a real threat to its owner is generally not labeled as protective aggressive. Rather, any dog that demonstrates inappropriate aggression in protection of its owner is diagnosed with protective aggression.

    A dog’s perception of its territory may include areas of general access such as sidewalks and neighboring yards. Allowing a territorial dog to run free in the area it is protecting creates a dangerous situation. Many dog bites have occurred as a result of territorially aggressive dogs running unsupervised. Providing the dog with a specific boundary to protect, such as a fence, actually tends to make the problem worse.

    Desensitizing the dog to the source of its aggression is cautiously recommended; professional advice should be sought for each individual case. Prescription drug therapy may be needed in some cases.

  4. Predatory aggression - Dogs which chase small animals, bikers, or cars are displaying a form of predatory aggression. Another type of predatory aggression is manifested by silently staring at and stalking prey. Small animals and infants are sometimes victimized by this type of aggression. With their unpredictable high-pitched screaming, uncoordinated movements, and helpless position in a crib or on the floor, infants may resemble wounded prey to a predator. The silent, stalking type of predatory aggression is potentially more dangerous than the type manifested by barking and chasing.

    Infants are killed every year by dogs. Prevention is of primary importance and infants should NEVER be left alone with any aggressive dog. Behavior modification programs to cure this type of aggression are not recommended by many behaviorists. The risk may be too great because desensitization or other behavior strategies would require leaving infants and dogs together on an increasingly trusting basis. Proper restraint (leashes, fences) is necessary to completely prevent predatory behavior toward cars, skateboarders, and small animals. Restraint is extremely important to prevent injury both to the individual being chased and to the dog.

  5. Interdog aggression - Aggression between dogs usually occurs among those of the same gender: males aggressive toward other males and females aggressive toward other females. Aggression can be among dogs within a household or among dogs which are strangers to each other. If aggression occurs between males and females, it is more likely to be among dogs which are unfamiliar with each other. Interdog aggression receives its own category while it may actually be a specific type of dominance, territorial, or fear aggression.

    Many serious dogs bites have been inflicted upon people who use their own bodies to break-up a dog fight. ALWAYS use an instrument such as a broom or board to separate the dogs, followed by proper leash and/or muzzle restraint. Dog bites can be very serious and even life threatening. Medical help should be sought for ANY dog bite inflicted on a human or another dog.

    Therapy for interdog aggression usually starts with castrating or spaying the offending dog. This is one form of aggression where hormonal influence is very significant, and where the aggression can be markedly reduced by neutering. Another reason for neutering a dog diagnosed with interdog aggression is preventing the potential for passing this aggression on to offspring.

    Behavior modification tools for dealing with interdog aggression include obedience training, desensitization therapy, and hierarchal reinforcement strategies. Additionally, some medications can be used to decrease aggression. Dogs which exhibit interdog aggression should not be left unsupervised around other dogs.

  6. Maternal aggression - This type of aggression is displayed by female dogs with puppies, during pregnancy or false pregnancy (pseudopregnancy), and during whelping. Some female dogs will "mother" a toy and demonstrate aggression when the toy is taken away. Biting can occur, especially if the toy or puppy is taken away. A maternally aggressive dog may eat the toy or puppy if she feels any threat. This type of aggression typically resolves itself once the puppies are weaned or the false pregnancy has ended. Avoidance of what is provoking the aggression is the best strategy. Females experiencing a false pregnancy can be spayed to prevent recurrence.
  1. Destructiveness/Barking: Dogs can be destructive to their environment by digging, chewing, and biting. Destructiveness is generally a manifestation of an underlying problem such as attention-seeking behavior, anxieties, hunger, or inappropriate play behavior. Barking is generally not a manifestation of an underlying problem, but rather a reaction to environmental cues. The main exception to this rule is when the barking is the result of separation anxiety. Both destructiveness and incessant barking are common symptoms of separation anxiety.

    Treatment of destructiveness requires correction of the underlying cause. Reduction of destructive behavior may be accomplished by ensuring the dog is adequately exercised. Positive feedback for calm behavior and passive negative feedback for inappropriate behavior can also help.

    Barking can be a more difficult problem to treat. Counterconditioning and reinforcement therapy may be helpful. Bark or shock collars are a source of reinforcement and work through a type of active, remote negative feedback. Some professionals believe that this type of treatment for barking problems can curb barking (usually a normal behavior), but it tends to be replaced with some manifestation of fear or anxiety (abnormal behaviors). A product called the Citronella anti-bark collar shows promise as a more humane method of using active, remote negative feedback to help with barking problems.
    Another controversial issue is the vocal cordectomy (debarking) surgery. The response to the surgery is variable, but may be the only solution for some cases. The bottom line is the fact that there is no quick solution for dealing with a barking dog.

  2. Elimination Problems:
  1. Incomplete housebreaking - Many dogs urinate or defecate in the house because of improper or inadequate housebreaking. Any dog that is older than 6 months of age and continues to have occasional accidents is likely not completely housebroken. A commonly observed behavior in incompletely housebroken dogs is that these animals may prefer to eliminate on the substrate (surface) where they were originally kept as puppies. Substrate preferences are best developed by 8 ˝ weeks of age. Puppies which are adopted after this age may be more difficult to train or end up as incompletely housebroken dogs due to their substrate preferences. Inadequate access to the proper areas for elimination can actually cause a normally housebroken dog to revert to an incompletely housebroken dog that uses substrate preferences such as carpet.

    Incompletely housebroken dogs and dogs with substrate preferences should be retrained by:
  1. Anxiety and fear elimination - Anxieties are quite common in dogs and result in many types of behavior problems, such as house-soiling. Anxieties which occur in the absence of the owner may be categorized as separation anxiety, barrier frustration, and sometimes as a lack of environmental stimulation. This type of anxiety can result directly in house-soiling with the anxiety acting as the stimulus. Other anxieties, such as a fear of road noise, can result in indirect house-soiling due to a reluctance to eliminate when stressed or anxious. Because of stress caused by road noise, these animals may not eliminate while on a walk. These dogs will often have an accident in the house as soon as the road noise anxiety has subsided. Still other anxieties may be caused by animals, objects, or people, such as a house guest that the dog is afraid of. Again, this type of house-soiling is directly related to the presence of the anxiety.

    Certain conditions must be met before a diagnosis of anxiety-related inappropriate elimination is diagnosed. Treatment of anxieties centers on treatment of the underlying condition. Counter conditioning and desensitization (see below) are key components to behavior modification therapy. Punishment of dogs with fear-induced urination is not recommended. Pharmacological help is available in the form of anti-depressants and other drugs.

  2. Submissive/excitement urination - Submissive urination is more common in young puppies (particularly females) and in dogs which have been over-corrected. A dog exhibiting submissive urination generally assumes a submissive position when approached (i.e. rolling, tucking of the tail, hanging the head) and urinates. Observation of this behavior does not necessarily mean that the dog has been beaten or abused. Excitement urination is usually seen in young, energetic dogs. Generally, these dogs urinate while running, standing, or jumping, and the problem may be particularly noticeable if the dog is surprised and becomes very excited.

    Treatment for submissive urination is usually successful with a desensitization/counterconditioning program. Occasionally, putting diapers on the dog or administering a mild anti-anxiety drug may be necessary. Punishment for dogs that have submissive urination problems should be avoided, because this tends to perpetuate the problem. Dogs exhibiting excitement urination usually outgrow the problem. Frequent walks, adequate exercise, and desensitizing the dog to the things which cause the excitement are also recommended.

  3. Urine marking - Both male and female dogs can mark, although marking by intact male dogs is most common. Marking is a behavior that is influenced by both hormonal and social factors. Hormonal influences are enhanced when females are in estrus (heat). The social factors that are associated with urine marking are very complex and numerous.

    Castration of male dogs generally decreases the frequency of marking behavior by about two-thirds. Remote negative reinforcement, obedience work, and confinement are useful behavior modification strategies. Certain medications may also be used to treat persistent markers.

  4. Geriatric or hormonal incontinence - Elimination problems due to these causes are among the most difficult to treat. Lack of muscle tone in the lower urinary tract is usually the culprit, and the problem can be very persistent. Low levels of estrogen in older spayed female dogs is a common cause of house-soiling.

    Behavior modification programs seldom help in these cases. Assistance with a variety of drugs is generally the only option. For example, supplementing older spayed females with estrogen is often successful in hormonal incontinence.
  1. Anxiety, Phobias, and Fears:
    Anxieties, fears, phobias, obsessive compulsive behavior, and panic disorders are all related problems seen in dogs. The most common anxiety seen in canines is known as separation anxiety. All of the above disorders may result in a variety of behavioral problems including destructiveness, barking, house-soiling, self mutilation, and aggression.
  1. Separation anxiety - Separation anxiety is manifested when an affected dog is left alone. The dog’s level of anxiety increases at the beginning signs of being left alone (watching its owner put a coat on, listening to keys jangle, etc.) and escalates to a climax usually within the first 20-30 minutes after being left alone. Symptoms may range from mild (pacing, whining) to severe (tearing through walls or doors, causing injury to self). It is considered by some that severe cases may have a panic disorder in combination with separation anxiety.

    Separation anxiety is usually best treated with a combination of behavior modification tools (desensitization), combined with anti-anxiety medication. Mildly affected dogs may benefit from behavior modification techniques alone. Professional help is recommended in all cases, however. Desensitization to being left alone can often be accomplished if the dog’s owner will, on a frequent basis, leave for very short periods of time (5 minutes) and return before the anxiety climax has been reached (20- 30 minutes after leaving). The owner may also put on his/her coat and carry the keys around the house, as if to leave, but then replace the coat and keys and remain home. This desensitizes the dog to the cues that begin causing anxiety. With professional assistance, other specific strategies can be formed for each individual case.

  2. Fears/Phobias - Fears and phobias are so closely related to each other they can generally be considered the same thing. Phobias are basically intensified fears, although either a phobia or a fear can develop from a single event. Dogs can exhibit fears or phobias toward specific people, stereotypes of people (i.e. men with long hair), noises, or places. The most common canine phobia is experienced at the veterinary clinic. Dogs may also commonly exhibit fears or phobias of thunderstorms, firecrackers/fireworks, and children. The animal will often freeze, shake, bite, or attempt to escape.

    Treatment for these problems involves conditioning the pet to accept and tolerate these situations. This can be accomplished by repeatedly exposing the animal to the fearful event in a way that does not elicit a fearful response. For example, if the pet fears loud noises, the animal can be exposed to soft, yet abrupt noises at first. As the dog becomes accustomed to these sounds, louder and more intense noises can be introduced. Often, just keeping the animal at a distance from a noisy object can help. While constantly encouraging the pet, the dog can gradually be brought closer and then closer to the noxious noise. A more aggressive strategy for fears and phobias is known as flooding. This technique is described below. It is particularly difficult to desensitize animals to thunderstorms, because weather events are difficult to imitate and reproduce under controlled conditions. If the problem situation cannot be avoided or desensitized against, anti-anxiety medications may be required.
  1. Obsessive compulsive disorder - Some psychologists believe that obsessive compulsive behavior is a form of self-treatment for anxiety problems. Common types of behaviors which may be associated with obsessive compulsive disorder are excessive licking or chewing (objects, self), eating disorders, tail chasing and pacing, or other repetitive movements. One of the most commonly encountered of these is the lick granuloma. This is a raised open sore on the dog’s body, usually in the flank area or on the limbs, which results from constant self-licking by the dog.

    Obsessive compulsive disorders tend to occur in genetic lines and can sometimes be almost impossible to control. A combination of behavior modification (counterconditioning strategies) and anti-anxiety medication tends to be the most helpful therapy for this type of anxiety disorder.
  1. Eating Disorders:
    Eating disorders seen in dogs include anorexia (not eating), polyphagia (eating to much), polydipsia (drinking to much), and pica (eating improper things like feces and plastic objects).
  1. Anorexia - Occasionally a dog will refuse food for a short time and no medical reasoning can be found as to why the dog will not eat. Often these dogs will eat human food if offered. Many of these animals are suspected of attempting to manipulate their owners and have learned that by refusal of their own food, they will be fed treats and human food. Treatment of this condition is accomplished by feeding the dog only its own food and not allowing it to learn or be rewarded for manipulative behavior.

  2. Polyphagia - If left to eat food free-choice, some dogs will overeat and become obese. This seems to occur with some frequency when another dog is introduced to the household. Determination of the correct caloric needs of the overeater and restriction of the diet to the necessary amount is recommended. See page A575 for additional help on calculating an appropriate diet.

  3. Psychogenic polydipsia - The over-consumption of water may constitute a behavioral or medical disorder; diagnostic testing must be performed to ensure that the condition is not a result of a medical problem. Dogs with psychogenic polydipsia tend to be young animals which may be attempting to seek attention from their owners. The owner attention comes when the animal frequently requests to be walked or let outside to urinate. Increased exercise, attention, and restriction of water are usually effective treatments.

  4. Pica - Pica is defined as the eating of non-food items. Pica may or may not constitute an actual behavioral abnormality. Puppies exhibit pica more commonly than adult dogs, and this behavior is generally considered normal for a puppy (although it may be unhealthy). Grass-eating is also considered normal behavior in dogs, although it is unknown what the motivation is for eating grass. Pica can also result from anxieties, for which behavior modification therapy may be helpful. For proper treatment, the underlying anxiety must be addressed.
  1. Sexual Behavior Problems:
  1. Mounting - Mounting behavior is probably second only to urine marking as a sexual behavior annoyance to dog owners. Both male and female dogs can exhibit mounting behavior and can mount other dogs, furniture, or people. Mounting is best controlled with neutering and counterconditioning therapy.


Behavior Modification Program: Planning and accomplishing a behavior modification program is usually very challenging and time consuming; however, the results can be very rewarding if the program is carried out thoroughly and patiently. A behavior modification program is made up of the various strategies or tools which have been previously mentioned under each specific behavior problem. These strategies are also listed in the following information with a brief description of the principle behind each one. Strategies must be selected based on a diagnosis of the underlying behavior disorder. Professional help is recommended when developing a behavior modification program for any animal with a behavior problem.

Behavior Modification Strategies:

  1. Desensitization - Desensitization is one of the most commonly used techniques in behavior modification therapies. It consists of gradually exposing the dog to the event or object which causes the undesirable response. Desensitization is especially useful with anxieties, fears, and phobias, but is also very helpful in some types of aggression and elimination problems. Desensitization is often combined with other techniques such as positive reinforcement and counterconditioning.

  2. Counterconditioning - Counterconditioning is the replacement of undesirable behavior with an acceptable behavior. The acceptable behavior may simply be sitting calmly, but it must interfere directly with the undesirable behavior. The acceptable behavior can be rewarded using positive reinforcement techniques. Counterconditioning may be useful for animals with anxieties, aggression, elimination problems, and other disorders.

  3. Reinforcement - This is the process of altering the probability that a certain behavior will repeat itself. Reinforcement can be either negative or positive.
  1. Negative reinforcement: Negative reinforcement works by motivating the animal to do a certain behavior by removing a negative stimulus. For example, a dog with a bark collar is rewarded for being quiet by stopping the shock stimulus. Negative reinforcement can be direct (close range), remote (from a distance), passive (i.e. withholding attention), or active (i.e. shock from a shock collar).
  2. Positive reinforcement: Positive reinforcement works by motivating the animal to do a certain behavior, by using a system of rewards. Rewards generally used in positive reinforcement are praise and attention, positive activities enjoyed by the dog, and treats.
  1. Flooding - Flooding is a technique, similar to desensitization, in which the animal is exposed to the object or event which causes fear or anxiety. The major difference is that instead of gradual exposure to the object or event, the dog is exposed at very high levels until the animal stops responding. Flooding is an extremely stressful technique to the animal, and if not used properly, can result in emotional damage. Flooding should generally be used as a last resort in most situations.

  2. Obedience training - Obedience training is included at the end of this list, not as a technique, but rather as an option. All over the world, professional trainers offer classes in which a variety of behavior modification strategies are used to train dogs.