Defining dog behavior problems

IAABC Certified

Defining dog behavior problems?

Typically, there are several ways to approach and define a problem behavior. First, a behavior consultant should have a clear understanding of what normal behavior patterns are for any particular species and that normal behavior may be expressed inappropriately depending on the environment. Second, the behavior consultant should consider a clients “…cultural and personal preferences and normative judgments” since they may impact the client’s “attitudes and expectations, scientific understanding, societal mores [customs] about animal behavior, and costs…associated with the dog’s behavior” (Lindsay, 2001).

What is the purpose of the dog ethogram?

An ethogram provides a compilation of a species normal functional systems and behavior patterns. The dog ethogram compiled by Lindsay (2001) provides “…an abbreviated catalog of significant functional systems and species-typical behavior patterns” and can be useful to the canine behavior consultant when assessing a dogs behavior problem. Additionally, one should consider the cause of the behavior (etiology), the descriptive features of the behavior and function the behavior may serve the animal. Understanding the precipitating stimuli (antecedents) and significance (consequence) the behavior may serve the animal may all be necessary in determining a plan for intervention.

How does the behavior consultant define a dog behavior problem?

The behavior consultant should consider any behavior in opposition to client’s expectations as a problem behavior. However, this conclusion is subjective, what an individual client may consider objectionable or even abnormal may in fact be quite normal for dogs.
The knowledgeable behavior consultant will be able to sort out the many behavior problems that may be as insignificant as nuisance behavior i.e. barking, jumping, chewing and digging along with more serious behavior problems such as aggression and compulsive disorders.
Often the behavior problem is solved simply by educating the client concerning normal dog behavior that seems to conflict with their own personal misconception. Occasionally there are clients who may defend inappropriate behavior; this requires the behavior consultant to instruct through education so an effective understanding can be reached along with taking into consideration how the behavior may influence the human-dog relationship specifically in cases of aggression.
The purpose of the behavior consultant is to educate clients concerning normal dog behavior, therefore changing any unfounded expectations to be more in line with normal dog behavior, along with providing any training that may be helpful to resolving the conflict. This type of approach ensures both client and dog that both parties are being considered enabling the human-dog bond to remain in tact.

A word about labeling…

“To label me is to negate me” (Kierkegaard). Lindsay (2001) uses this phrase to highlight what may create more problem than will be resolved when trying to help dog owners’ deal with problem behavior. Not only might the label be incorrect in identifying the problem behavior leading to ineffective treatment, but also labeling carries with it “stigma[s] or connotations” that may be counter-productive to any training plan.
Additionally, Lindsay (2001) cautions “naming and classifying behavior problems as diagnostic entities” may give undue credit to our understanding and ability to accurately diagnose problem behavior, because “…many behavior problems remain to be elucidated [and]…most of the behavioral protocols commonly used to treat them have not been scientifically tested or validated.”
There could be included many underlying reasons for the development of a behavior problem including, biological and physiological factors, dysfunctional social and environmental influences, deprivation and trauma, inappropriate play and inadvertent reinforcement.

The family’s role

“A dog’s role” according to Levinson (1969/1997) ‘will depend upon the family’s structure, its emotional undercurrents, the emotional and physical strengths and weaknesses of each of its members, and the family’s social climate’ (Lindsay, 2001).
In most instances, dogs are given adequate care and attention but in cases of serious behavior problems conflicts may compete overshadowing the positive aspects of dog ownership (Lindsay, 2001).
There are many family situations that may affect the welfare of the family dog, often in dysfunctional families the dog may serve as a scapegoat a way for members to shame one another and in some cases the behavior problem may bring “stability and cooperation” to what may otherwise be a dysfunctional environment. However, most cases involve well functioning families that generally take interest in solving problems.

The effect of relationship and bond

The relationship and bond created between owner and dog offers the behavior consultant important information in resolving behavior conflicts. According to Serpell (1996), “the owner’s degree of attachment for a dog has a direct bearing on how satisfied or dissatisfied the person will be with the dog’s behavior.” The family that has established “strong attachment and affection” toward the dog will be more “tolerant” of its behavior (Lindsay, 2001).

How do owners contribute to the dog’s behavior?

Most often behavior problems occur from improper application of rewards and punishments having negative effects on how the dog learns. There may also be cases of substance abuse that creates inconsistent interaction resulting in disorganized influences on resultant behavior. Similar to the effects of attachment an owner’s attitude and mental state may equally influence the dog’s emotional state. Lindsay (2001) reports a psychiatrist (Speck, 1965) as having observed a “direct relationship between severe mental illness and a contagion effect on animals living in the same household.”

Lindsay (2001) concedes, these “presumably strong social influences” are not widely confirmed by dog behavior consultants or other practitioners. However, he notes, “most counselors and trainers” agree that owner attitude and mental state would exert some influence over dogs’ behavior. How much is unknown but according to O’Farrell (1985), “anecdotal evidence” demonstrates a connection between owner personality and dog behavior and empirical evidence suggests a basis for speculation does exist between owner attitudes, personality, and dog behavior and this association can create a “causal” relationship. In addition, O’Farrell (1995) says, “owners suffering from mental disturbances tend to project undesirable qualities and traits onto their dogs more frequently” and “neurotic individuals” seem to report more behavior problems. Even though these conclusions were not supported by a subsequent study (Beaver, 1982) “owner anxiety levels do appear to affect how troubling or disturbing” fearful behavior may be viewed by owners (Lindsay, 2001 & Serpell, 1995).
A study by Dodman (1996) concluded “effects of owner personality traits” in relation to the expression of dominance aggression did not confirm any “personality-type differences” but did reveal “thinking-type owners” versus “feeling type owners” stood a 50% or better chance at improvement when implementing a non-confrontational treatment program (Lindsay, 2001).

Triangular Effects

According to Papero (1990), “…triangular relations develop in situations where a third party is incorporated into a dyad relationship to deflect intense emotional states and to secure stability” (Lindsay, 2001).
In situations of triangulation, the dog may serve an alternative for affection, anxiety and anger and often mediating relationships between family members. In some instances, the dog may serve as “peacemaker, tension-breaker, or scapegoat [providing]…enhanced attachment and affiliation” for some members of the family and at the same time acting to reduce “measures of affiliation” for others.

Owner attitudes and resolute styles

The influential effects derived from differing owner styles for problem solving can influence how they view potential successes versus failures when faced with dog behavior problems. Confident owners who perceive control over significant events will undoubtedly be more receptive in accepting responsibility in changing perceived dog behavior problems. Where as less confident owners may feel resolving the problem is out of their reach or influence and quickly resign themselves to a defeatist position.
It should also be noted the “extent and duration” of the behavior problem coupled with this sense of helplessness or frustration can be correlated with these owner attitudes and resolute styles.

Negative or pessimistic owner attitudes

The fallout from these negative and pessimistic outlooks can have inadvertent effects on a dog’s behavior. These owners could be described as enablers or facilitators, with enablers being the most difficult to counsel. Enablers are usually “unconscious or unaware” the role they play in their dogs behavior and are usually permissive lacking any “healthy assertive skills” and quite often “defensive” about their dogs behavior feeling it may reflect some “personal shortcoming or failing.” The most remarkable attributes might include “denial, victimization, and helplessness” (Lindsay, 2001).

Owner sabotage

Many times behavior consultants are called in when it seems to be the last hope for saving the relationship between dog and owner and in many of these cases, the owner may appear quite “frustrated” for not attending to the behavior problem sooner. However, in other instances, the problem behavior may actually serve a “dysfunctional purpose” such as in triangulations, substance abuse and mental illness. However, in most cases according to Lindsay (2001) the problem is related to “enabling and denial” and may include convoluted views of dogs and their relationship and rather than give up this misguided view these owners often “give up the dog.”

Procrastination (futurizing)

Procrastination is normal for many of us, especially in situations that provide little reinforcement. However, this kind of attitude can have averse effects on the human-dog relationship especially in cases where early training is negated either because owners think the dog will be fine without training or that puppies will grow out of the normal puppy mischief that so many of us experience. This type of attitude may not only create more problems but also make the initial problem worse coupled with creating deleterious affects on the human-dog relationship.

Psychiatric and substance abuse

One of the more sensitive areas of client classification might be associated with psychiatric concerns or substance abuse and Lindsay (2001) suggests in these cases the most appropriate course of action is to “consult with professionals familiar with such matters.”

How can the behavior consultant help?

In matters of behavior, dog owners should seek out only those consultants qualified through appropriate education and training. Animal behavior problems can be complicated along with recognizing the unique characteristics of each individual animal and family.
The skilled behavior consultant will embrace not only scientific knowledge but will have sufficient education in dog behavior consulting as exemplified by cynopraxic modalities. The cynopraxic trainer-consultant will not only acknowledge the necessity of play, esthetic appreciation, emotional empathy, compassion and ethical restraint but will characterize qualities that mediate connectedness, facilitate the bonding process, support behavioral healing, composure, sincerity of purpose, presence and a certain amount of playfulness (Lindsay, 2001).
In conclusion, “the ability to train dogs is an art that depends on a trainer’s ability to play and a dog’s ability to play in turn…where there is no play, there is no relationship or meaning.” Play facilitates “portals of affection and trust” and “humane dog training is playing with a purpose” and as “Heine Hediger (1955/1968) said, ‘Good training is disciplined play’ Lindsay (2001).


Lindsay, Steven R. Handbook of applied dog behavior and training. 2 Vols.
Iowa: Iowa SP. 2001. Vol. 2.
Serpell, James, ed. The domestic dog: its evolution, behavior, and interaction with people.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1995.

Additional Reference

The Role of a Behavioral Consultant American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB)
Responsible Dog & Cat
Training and Behavior Solutions, LLC
Joyce D. Kesling, CDBC
© Joyce Kesling 2005-2017


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