Unwanted Or Unsafe Dog Behaviors And Habits

In this post:

  1. What should I do if my dog starts acting weird? 
  2. Where should I draw the line in my dog’s unsafe behavior?
  3. Getting help with unwanted behavior
  4. What causes these unwanted behaviors and habits?
  5. How to give feedback on the dog’s behavior?

Please Note: Wag Enabled content (videos, posts, and articles) should not be used to diagnose behavioral issues. The content provided in this article is meant as an educational tool. You should always work closely with your pet’s veterinarian and a professional dog trainer and/or certified animal behaviorist.

Each dog has its own personality. Just like humans, these personalities are shaped by the animal’s experiences. When you raise your dog from a puppy, you get to know your dog’s personality inside and out. Their habits, characteristics, what makes them sad, and what makes them overjoyed.

When you adopt a dog, especially an older one, you don’t have control over the experiences that your new family member has already had. When I adopted one of my puppies (she’s 14 now, but I still consider her a puppy), she had an intense fear of men. We had to take extra care and show her some extra love in order to help her overcome that fear. Now my father is her FAVORITE person.

This is why staying in tune with your dog and any new character traits or habits that pop up is so vitally important to their health and your overall relationship with them. In this blog, we’re going to take a look at some behavior changes that can occur in puppies and dogs, and whether or not you should be concerned about them.

What should I do if my dog starts acting weird?

Let me just say up front that if you notice a startling (or even subtle) change in your dog’s behavior, regardless of what it seems to be, call your vet. They will be happy to discuss it with you over the phone or schedule an appointment to review the situation just in case the new behavior or habit is the result of an illness or injury. If you’re able to get the new behavior on video, that can further help them decide if you need to come in for a visit.

From Jan Rasmusen

Some examples of unusual behavioral changes in your dog:

  • Having accidents in the house past the puppy potty training stage
  • Becoming aggressive or reactive to situations that never bothered your dog before
  • Increasingly fearful of things that your dog wasn’t afraid of
  • Energy level changes – your dog becoming usually reactive or seeming to not have anergy anymore

Many of these and other canine ‘problem’ behaviors can result from thyroid dysfunction, or a vaccine or drug reaction. Even food with high sugar content can cause behavior problems, as it can with children.

From Jan Rasmusen

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Where should I draw the line in my dog’s unsafe behavior?

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It can be hard to decide when you should not allow a dog to do a behavior. A rule of thumb is that if you do not want a large dog to do something, a small dog should not be allowed to do it either. Above I used Rottweiler as an example because most people can picture how big and massive they are. Rottweilers are the sweetest dogs, but this helps give you a visual. You could also use American Bulldog or German Shepherd.

If you cringe at the idea of seeing a child being chased and nipped at by a 100 lb. German Shepherd, your Shih Tzu should not be allowed to do that either. If you think having an Akita growl at you while cuddling with their owner is a bad idea, your Chihuahua should not be allowed to do that either. If you think a huge pitbull barking at the door will deter thieves, then go ahead and let your Lhasa Apso bark at the door, as long as both breeds stop when you ask them and they do not get aggressive.

Not all behaviors can fall into black or white situations, but you could use this as the start to help you make your dog a better canine citizen.

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Puppies and small dogs are often allowed to get away with potentially dangerous behavior due to their size and cuteness. It’s important to keep in mind that these behaviors could escalate and that the puppy won’t “grow out” of it without intervention.

In her article “Warning Signs and Causes of Dangerous and Aggressive Dogs,” Adrienne Farricelli talks further about what behaviors can be dangerous and what some causes could be. If the behavior has a sudden onset, then it’s a good idea to speak with your veterinarian to make sure that there is no medical issue that is contributing to it.

If your veterinarian has known your dog since he/she was a puppy, then they will have a better idea of your dog’s background and will have better insight into the behavior change. This is another reason why choosing a veterinarian that you’re comfortable seeing long term is such a good idea.

Getting help with unwanted behavior

I cannot emphasize this enough, always work with your veterinarian to rule out any medical issues that might be causing your dog’s unwanted behavior. James Ha, Ph.D., CAAB tells a story of working with a german shepherd that started biting his owners when they would try to pet him. He took the dog to the vet and learned that the dog had a spine injury and every time someone pets him, the injury would cause a lot of pain and discomfort.

Once you’ve ruled out a medical condition, work with a positive reinforcement trainer or behaviorist who bases their technique in current animal behavior research. You can find amazing behaviorists and trainers through our “Find a Pet Pro” section or reaching out to Wag Enabled directly.

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Photo Credit: Seattle Flashing Lights Photography – Aly working with her dogs on impulse control

What causes these unwanted behaviors and habits?

It used to be a popular belief that your dog was aggressive or refused to follow commands due to dominance issues. With new research and advances in the understanding of canine development, it’s been discovered that most dogs don’t display dominance and that this unwanted behavior is a form of anxiety, fear, or lack of understanding from the dog.

These underlying issues must be dealt with first then the unwanted behavior can be changed. While the lack of understanding can be dealt with changing training tactics, anxiety and fear may need specialist interventions.

I wish every dog owner had a better understanding of how anxiety presents in animals, especially dogs. The most common trigger for new behaviors and habits is anxiety, and it can have a huge effect on your four-legged family member. If you address any anxiety issues, you might see the behavior phase-out before it becomes a full-blown habit.

If you understand that your dog is reacting to another dog, person, or even a child out of fear, you deal with the situation differently. Instead of just suppressing it and hoping that it might not resurface, you are dealing with an underlying issue that needs to be addressed and resolved. Your dog is afraid and unsure. He/she needs counter conditioning and positive reinforcement from a professional dog behaviorist to get over all of his/her fears.

How to give feedback on the dog’s behavior?

Your dog needs immediate feedback on his/her behavior.

Dogs can follow about one step of causality – they live in the moment. If your dog barks and you want him or her to stop, then you need to address that behavior immediately – not five minutes later. While some breeds have a higher level of understanding and can comprehend longer directives, dogs will typically only follow about two behaviors at a time – “I did this and then I did that and then my owner did this“. Anything that happened before is no longer associated with the reward or punishment at the given moment.

Don’t allow your dog to continue the behavior for any amount of time. Redirect it or give your dog incompatible commands to stop the behavior (for example a dog cannot jump on a person while in a down position or can’t mouth on guests if they are carrying a toy). Reward the wanted behavior immediately and don’t allow time to pass by since the reward will no longer be associated with past behavior.

It’s your job to give constructive feedback and redirect the behavior. Keep soothing tones and try not to allow yourself to be jarred or startled. If you remain calm, the chances are your dog will calm down more quickly.

Final Thoughts:

You are your animal’s whole world. Not only do they rely on you for love, affection, food, water, and exercise, (just to name a few) but they also follow your lead on behavioral and response cues. Keeping an eye on your dog for any signs of anxiety, stress, or other behavior issues can head off any long term relationship issues between the two of you, as well as potentially alert you to any injuries or illnesses that you might not otherwise notice.

Just as you take note when a family member or friend looks a little sad or under the weather, you need to keep an eye on your four-legged family member. They depend on you for all of this and considering that our reward is the joyful companionship they bring us, I’d say it’s completely worth it.

There are no bad dogs, only bad habits that are usually the result of an underlying illness, anxiety, fear, or even past experience. Please speak with your trusted veterinarian and positive reinforcement trainers/behaviorists regarding any concerns you might have.

Special Thanks To:

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Dr. James C. Ha, Ph.D., CAAB

Dr. James C. Ha, Ph.D., CAAB is a professor of applied animal behavior at the University of WA and a certified applied animal behaviorist with over 30 years of experience in animal behavior teaching, research, consulting, and expert witness services. Aly was privileged enough to be in his Applied Animal Behavior Certification program.
Aly DelaCoeur, UW-AAB
Aly DelaCoeur, UW-AAB is one of the founders of Wag Enabled (originally Why Does My Dog). Aly has a certificate in applied animal behavior through the University of Washington and is a certified veterinary assistant and AKC Evaluator. She aims to provide an unbiased perspective on dog training by providing practical, intelligent, and caring advice for people to impart on their canine companions