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Common Behaviour Problems That Could be Caused by Anxiety

August 01, 2016

Common Behaviour Problems That Could be Caused by Anxiety

When it comes to dogs there are so many complex layers to any behaviour problem.  If you’re lucky enough to find an intuitive trainer that really takes the time to ask lots of questions instead of jumping straight into advice-giving then you’ll quickly find yourself working on issues you never knew your dog had.  As my sister the therapist says, “The issue is never the issue.”

In my first few years as a trainer I spent a lot of time working on seemingly simple issues and getting no results.  The road was long and confusing for me and frustrating for my clients.  It has become unbelievably clear to me that the real root cause for a lot of behaviours that seem simple is actually anxiety.  A lot of our dogs are anxious these days.  They’re wound-up, overstimulated, hyper vigilant, and unable to settle.  To make matters worse, behaviours that we’ve been interpreting as “bad”, or “dominant”, are actually just an outburst of nervous energy-a nervous system on overload crying out for relief.  Let’s walk through a few of these common behaviour problems that might need a second look and hopefully, a new perspective.

Leash Biting

This is an extremely embarrassing and often scary problem.  Your dog just randomly starts biting at the leash, your clothes, skin, and whatever else it can get a hold of.  It seems to happen at pretty common times: when leaving the park; at a certain point in the walk (perhaps when passing by a certain house); when just leaving the front door etc.  For every dog it’s a little bit different, but for every dog it seems to happen at a consistent time or place.  When I get a call for this problem I always ask my clients to start journaling what happened immediately before the incident or even earlier in the day. One of my clients who swore it was completely random ended up noticing that it happened immediately after they had passed another dog on the street, and for another, whenever a stranger came up to pet her dog.  Sure, we could spend endless hours teaching your dog to drop it (and we will) but if we don’t isolate what’s causing that outburst of nervous energy we’ll never get anywhere.  Often times I’ve found when we’re able to intervene before the trigger has passed or even change up the route or time the problem really does resolve itself.

Urine Marking

This one might surprise a lot of you, and to be honest, it has taken years for me to pick up on this.  In my experience often excessive urine marking in the house (barring a urinary tract infection) is correlated with insecurity.  Notice times when it worsens.  Has there been a change in routine? Has there been a recent move? A breakup? A new baby? While it is still recommended to get back to basics and implement a housetraining protocol you’ll likely make more progress if you can address your dog’s potential underlying discomfort.

Grabbing Treats with a Hard Mouth

You know when your dog all of a sudden turns into Jaws?  Everything was going just fine and then Fido starts grabbing each treat like he wants to take one of your fingers with it.  Really think about when this starts happening.  For a lot of my clients it happens the longer they’re out on a walk.  As the walk goes on, stress is gradually accumulating in your dog’s body.  Eventually it builds to a point where he seems to almost become “panicky” or “tweaked”.  It’s so easy to feel frustrated and angry when this happens and I really don’t blame you.  It might help to reframe your thinking from “my dog becomes an a@&hole at the end of his walk” to, “my dog’s really good at telling me that walk went on a bit too long.”

Resisting on Leash or Pulling on the Way Home

If you can catch this one in early puppyhood you’ll save yourself a world of frustration.  People often feel like their dog is just being stubborn and won’t move because he “doesn’t want to”.  If you really think about that, dogs usually have pretty good reasons for not wanting to do things.  And it doesn’t usually involve ruining your day. When does your dog start planting his butt? Is it in front of a particular house with a dog that barks out the window? Or maybe it’s at the same spot where he once was startled by a garbage can?  Again, this is all about finding that hidden detail and addressing the fears rather than the behaviour itself.  Dragging your dog past the scary Halloween pumpkin every day will only deepen his fears over time and cause him to lose trust in you.  The flip side of that is when your dog realizes he’s headed home he starts pulling like a mad fiend.  This is because he sees the end to his suffering and wants to make it stop as quickly as he can!

Humping

This one needs some clarification.  Not all dogs that hump are anxious.  A lot of dogs, however, become decidedly more “humpy” when there are a lot of stressful things happening around them, or when they’ve been allowed to escalate to a level of excitement that borders on stressful (think girls at a Justin Bieber concert).  If I notice any of the dogs in my group getting more insistent about humping I take that as a cue that we need to take a break and just come back down to earth for a little while.  In my experience, dogs that are incessant humpers of guests, their owners, other dogs etc. are also prone to a few of the other behaviours I’ve mentioned in this post. When you put them all together a clearer picture starts to emerge.

It should be said that there are of course exceptions to these scenarios.  I’ve seen dogs become obsessed with leash grabbing simply because it’s been so strongly reinforced.  I’ve seen dogs urine mark in the house simply because they were never properly house trained.  As always, look at any of these behaviours in context.  If you’ve been trying all the usual remedies and nothing’s working, it might be time to consider a deeper root cause.  And don’t forget to call a qualified trainer to help!

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Danielle Hodges, CPDT-KA

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Danielle Hodges, CPDT-KA

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