I Know They’re Normal Behaviors, but How Do I Fix Them?: Common Problems That Can Drive Any Dog Owner to Howl


Originally published on Aug, 5th 2014

This month features interviews with Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, and Lore I. Haug, MS, DVM, DACVB, authors of the chapter “I Know They’re Normal Behaviors, but How Do I Fix Them?” from “Decoding Your Dog,” a new book by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists on dog behavior.

Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB and a shelter puppy from San Francisco SPCA    www.sfspca.org Facebook: SF/SPCA and SF SPCA Behavior & Training

Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB and a shelter puppy from San Francisco SPCA
Facebook: SF/SPCA and SF SPCA Behavior & Training

Can you tell us how you decided to become a veterinary behaviorist?

Dr. Berger: My main interest as a veterinarian was always to maintain the animal’s best welfare. After I received a well-rounded education covering the medical aspects that a veterinarian encounters on a daily basis, I wanted to focus on the psychological aspects of animal health and well-being. After coming to UC Davis from Switzerland I had the opportunity to enter a three-year residency program in behavior medicine, which lead to board certification in 2007.

Dr. Haug: I became interested in behavior as a child when I began training dogs for competitive obedience. Throughout my veterinary career, the interest in behavior and neuroscience grew. By the time I decided to pursue specialty medicine, behavior was the obvious choice!

My dog loves everyone, greeting them at the door by jumping on them. How do I instruct her not to jump?

Dr. Berger: Very simple: Tell her WHAT you want. This is the pitfall of all training – we focus on what we don’t want rather on what we want. Start there and consistently reward THAT behavior, for example sitting. This is so easy because you already know what your dog is motivated to work for (greeting and attention) and therefore rewarding the right behavior is just a matter of timing. When is all the attention given? When she jumps or when her paws are on the ground?

Dr. Haug: This is a common problem. Even our friendly dogs can be annoying or pose an indirect danger to people, so it is important to address it. Start by preventing the dog from practicing the behavior – confine her/him behind a gate or in a crate while visitors enter. Then bring the dog out on a leash and teach the dog to sit politely when greeting people.

Note several behavior management techniques you have found effective?

Dr. Berger:

  1. Management in itself: setting your dog up to succeed and plan ahead to set up your home and environment so the dog can learn how to become a valued member of the family.
  2. Reward desired behavior consistently but don’t take it for granted and then become upset when the dog does something you did not want him/her to do.
  3. Use the right tools that engage the dog in a positive and creative manner to explore and perform the behaviors that make him/her a dog.

Dr. Haug: The basic importance of management is to set up the dog’s living arrangements to prevent it from practicing inappropriate behavior. This generally means confining the dog away from situations that allow it to exhibit the behavior or removing items that trigger the behavior (e.g. rawhides from a dog that guards them). For example:

  1. Confine a dog from visitors if it is aggressive to visitors.
  2. Avoid walking dogs near other dogs if your dog is aggressive or unruly around other dogs.
  3. Unruly or territorial dogs should not have access to a dog door that allows them to run outside and rehearse territorial behavior.

At what age can you begin training your puppy?

Dr. Berger: On the day you bring him home, no matter what age. That is when the relationship begins. Your dog is taking notes from every interaction with you whether you are aware of it or not. Developing a good relationship takes time and requires daily positive interactions.

Lore I. Haug MS, DVM, DACVB and Obi www.texasveterinarybehavior.com Facebook: Texas Veterinary Behavior Services LIhaug@aol.com

Lore I. Haug MS, DVM, DACVB and Obi
Facebook: Texas Veterinary Behavior Services

Dr. Haug: As soon as their eyes and ears open – as young as 3-4 weeks of age. However, there are limitations to what they can retain at this age. Puppies can definitely begin to learn a wide number of tasks starting at 6-8 weeks of age.

How do you deal with a middle-age rescue dog’s behavioral problems when you have no clue what form of training the previous owner used?

Dr. Berger: Every dog responds well to positive-reinforcement training, no matter what has happened previously.

Dr. Haug: No matter what you do, you cannot “remove” that previous learning. But you often can easily teach the dog something new or different from its earlier learned behavior.

Owners with rescue dogs often blame the dog’s behavior problems on what happened to it years before. These experiences certainly contributed to some degree to the dog’s behavioral repertoire, but what matters more is what the owner has or has not done to teach it something new and different.

What kind of toys have you found to be the best brain and physical stimulants for dogs?

Dr. Berger: Because every dog needs to eat, any form of food-dispensing toys are the best way to allow it to be creative and then successful. I recommend varying food-dispensing toys regularly to create new challenges. There is no need for healthy dogs to be fed from food bowls.

Dr. Haug: Toys are often individual to the dog – just like games and entertainment for people. Nevertheless, games and toys that provide dogs with normal outlets – social encounters, food foraging, chewing, etc., are generally good for most dogs.

What are positive actions an owner can exhibit to create a comfort zone for his/her mistrusting dog at nail-trimming time?

Dr. Berger: Create a safe environment, a specific place where the dog allows and enjoys handling the feet without the clippers at first. High-value treats can be given in that area to create a positive association. Then the nail trimmer itself needs to become a predictor of a good outcome; hence, a classical Pavlovian counter-conditioning is necessary. The clippers need to be predicting a desirable outcome – again a very high-value treat can be used to achieve this. Once the two steps are achieved then they can be gradually combined.

Dr. Haug: The best approach is to take the dog through a methodical retraining process so he/she learns to be comfortable during nail trimming or other maintenance procedures. An example of this process is outlined in our chapter in “Decoding Your Dog.”

List some helpful tricks of the trade for administering medications to Fido.

Dr. Berger: Pavlovian conditioning can be your best friend – or your worst enemy.   Rarely do dogs run away and hide when the refrigerator door opens because, in general, good things emerge. You can use the same process and make the medication container predict a great outcome. Keeping medication in the same area as the high-value treats helps to consolidate a desired response. And keep in mind – don’t lure your dog. The medication needs to be followed by bits of cheese or turkey, not the other way around.

Dr. Haug: Treat or medication taking can be trained as a specific behavior just like anything else. So an owner could work with something like a Pill Pocket and actually give the dog an “eat” cue and then click and praise the dog as it eats the Pill Pocket. After a number of training sessions, you give the dog three different Pill Pockets – one without medication, one with, and a last without. Each is preceded by the “eat” command and then the dog is praised.

If there is not a certified veterinary behaviorist in the area, where do you advise owners to turn for getting help correcting normal behaviors?

Dr. Berger: Ask your veterinarian; he or she should have a list of certified people with behavior degrees other than a veterinary specialist at hand or at least be able to recommend a qualified positive-reinforcement trainer.

Dr. Haug: I encourage owners to have their dog’s regular vet contact and a veterinary behaviorist by phone or e-mail. Often the veterinary behaviorist can give the primary veterinarian valuable initial recommendations about treatment. The veterinary behaviorist can also help the regular veterinarian find a suitable local person to provide assistance.

Is there anything else either of you would like to add?

Dr. Berger: Often I hear from my clients that they did not like to use the prong, shock collar or any confrontational method that was recommended to them. It made them feel uneasy and uncomfortable; however, they used it because it was recommended. All I ask owners to do is to keep their animal’s best welfare in mind. If it feels wrong to you, chances are it is wrong for your animal.


To order a copy of Decoding Your Dog click here. To learn more about the College of Veterinary Behaviorists, visit www.dacvb.org or visit us on facebook at dacvb.

The information provided in the Goodnewsforpets ACVB Helping People Help Their Pets columns is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the services of a veterinary behaviorist. The information should also not be construed as a recommendation by the ACVB or Goodnewsforpets.com for any course of action regarding veterinary medical or behavioral advice. The editors, authors and publisher disclaim any responsibility for adverse effects resulting directly or indirectly from information in this column.