If my dog is having behavior problems, are they capable of change?

That's a great question, and I think the simple answer to that is yes, but there are some factors to consider. The first consideration would be the longevity of the problem, as the longer the dog suffers from the behavior problem, the harder it will be to make positive change. The other thing is the severity of the problem. If it's a minor behavior issue—say, for example, potty training, that sometimes feels like a major issue, but that usually can be worked through with a methodical approach. Things like severe anxiety or aggressions issues will be much more complicated and may not get complete resolution. But there is always hope for some progress if the behavior problem is approached correctly.

Dr. Shawn McCorkle
Summer Creek Animal Clinic

When should you start obedience training with your dog?

If you have a puppy, the best thing to do is start as soon as possible. People are hesitant to start obedience training because, for example, their pet might not be fully vaccinated. But it's actually critical that training starts as soon as possible, particularly when it comes to the socialization side of things. Puppies below the age of about 14 weeks have the most success at becoming more socialized, well-adjusted dogs, and they are capable of learning at a young age. So starting obedience training early is always better.

If you adopt an adult dog, start training as soon as possible. Dogs will often have behavioral issues already at that point. And so, there might need to be some nuanced things to address, but working with a good positive reinforcement-based trainer will be helpful in most cases. Now I do emphasize positive reinforcement training because, unfortunately, many trainers out there use methods that have been proven to be unhelpful and potentially harmful to your dog. So we must focus on positive reinforcement training.

What are the most common behavior problems in dogs, and how can they be addressed?

Yeah, we could go in many different directions with that, but let's break it down into puppy stages and issues for older dogs. The big things that I typically see across the board with puppies are potty training, play biting, and crate training. Um, let's start with the first two. So potty training is something that is important for any dog household dog because they need to be able to go outside. I often recommend owners try not to use potty pads if possible because the end goal in most cases is for that dog to go outside. And so it's about constantly getting them outside and, again, focusing on positive reinforcement. So as soon as the puppy goes to the bathroom outside, you are out there with them, ready to give them a small treat as positive reinforcement, right after they go to the bathroom.

Play biting is a frustrating puppy behavior because every puppy struggles with it. And usually, for a while, that's how dogs interact with the world at that age of their mouth. So we have to be understanding that that's just part of their natural behavior. And again, we want to focus on that positive reinforcement. So redirecting them to something positive, like a toy, is an important redirection when they want to bite your hands and your feet. So then you can positively reinforce when they put their mouth on the appropriate thing.

With adult dogs, the biggest problem will be separation anxiety. And particularly since COVID, that has been a big issue with people. People were home with the dogs, and that was great, but separation anxiety occurred when you started getting back out into the world. That's a complicated issue that requires the help of a trained veterinarian and an experienced trainer that has experience dealing with separation anxiety. And also, in general, especially at our practice, we see a ton of dogs with a variety of anxiety issues. As veterinarians, we're not equipped to deal with all of the nuances of that. And so, having a veterinary behaviorist available to work through those issues can be life-changing for a lot of these dogs that deal with anxiety.

And when it comes to aggression, there are usually multiple underlying anxiety issues. So it's not that the dog is mean; it's that the dog has a lot of anxiety-based issues that manifest themselves in aggression. And there are a lot of nuances to that. And that's where a veterinary behaviorist can be particularly helpful, working through those.

Can behavior issues in my dog ever indicate that they are sick?

Yeah, absolutely. For example, if your dog's scooting their rear end on the ground a lot, that technically is a behavior issue and can indicate that their anal glands are full and need to be expressed. It sometimes isn't that simple, but other times it is. Dogs with anxiety issues will have a variety of behaviors at home that aren't necessarily picked up as anxiety. For example, if they tend to pace a lot or pant at weird times that don't seem to be associated with being hot, that can indicate pain or anxiety. And bad breath is an indication of periodontal disease.

What are some behavior problems that may be associated with a medical condition?

At our clinic, we see behavioral issues in dogs with thyroid disease. That is something that I think sometimes can be missed, especially dogs with anxiety issues. If they have an underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism, that can impact their behavior and make it very difficult to get certain behavior issues under control without managing the underlying disease.

How can a veterinarian help address my dog's behavior problems?

That's a great question. As veterinarians, we are equipped to deal with many behavior issues. Still, there are a lot of nuances, particularly when it comes to anxiety-based problems, which are a lot of the issues that we see. The big picture here is that when we're dealing with behavior issues first, a veterinarian needs to identify whether other underlying medical issues could be contributing to this behavior. Is there joint disease? Is there low thyroid function? Are there things that could be contributing to this behavior? So really, only a veterinarian is equipped to adequately assess that. And then once that's evaluated, and a particular behavior issue has been identified - depending on the severity and how long-standing it is - sometimes a general practitioner such as myself will be able to help work through some solutions.

Many of these anxiety cases would benefit most from working with somebody trained as a veterinarian with a particular focus on behavior. As an example, in where we are in Dallas/ Ft. Worth, there is not a single board-certified veterinary behaviorist in Atroplex as I record this video. Still, two veterinary behaviorists aren't board-certified who see high-level behavior cases. One of them is my associate, Dr. Heather Tucker, here at Summer Creek. And so that's why we see a lot of these difficult behavior cases because that is a service that we provide with Dr. Tucker. We identify the underlying anxiety issues and then develop that robust plan that includes the medical side. So we treat some of these anxiety issues medically, but then so much more than that, as we come up with a behavior plan that often means bringing in a well-qualified trainer to help work through the multiple behavioral issues to come up with the best long-term solution.

What other behavior management options are available for my dog?

One thing I'd like to hit on real quick with this question is one of the things that I would strongly advise against is negative reinforcement-based training. So just as an example, the use of shock collars or the milder form of those, like the E stem collars, or even the choke collars that have the punches on them. These are common methods used often by many trainers, and they have many negative implications to them. You may get an immediate result that you're looking for, but across the board, you will end up with more behavioral issues down the line. And again, as the service that we provide, we end up seeing a lot of those issues.

When you're talking about other behavior management options, I think we've hit on most of them, but if it's a relatively mild issue that is more training-based versus anxiety-based, focus on positive reinforcement methods. You are at least not going to cause your pet harm by doing that. So if you're ever looking for a trainer, ensure that you do your proper vetting to ensure they don't use techniques that have been proven to be harmful. Anxiety needs to be worked through by a veterinary professional who is equipped to work through all the nuances of that.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (817) 523-1139, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Dog Behavior - FAQs

Dr. Shawn McCorkle
Summer Creek Animal Clinic

When should my dog start obedience training?

Obedience training should start as soon as possible. The sooner you can start, the better your success, especially in a younger puppy. When you start at a young age, you will have more success with basic obedience, particularly regarding socialization, which is often not focused on enough in young dogs.

What are the most important, basic commands my dog should know?

Some of the basic ones that most people think of are "sit," "stay," and even some target training, which can be really useful. Having them respond to those basic commands can be very helpful. For example, if you can teach your pet to sit and stay on command or go to a particular location and sit or stay, you can prevent things like your dog slipping out the front door when it's open, which can be really dangerous in some situations. So I think the elementary stuff is essential.

How can I socialize my puppy?

That's a great question. This is an important topic to focus on in a young puppy. You will have the most success when you start to work on socialization when you get your puppy at six to eight weeks old until they're 12 to 14 weeks old. After that age, you can still socialize them, but it will be less impactful than in the early stage. It's essential not to wait until puppies are fully vaccinated to start socializing them because they will only get vaccinated after 16 weeks. If you put them in a bubble and don't get them out in the world at all, you're going to set your puppy up for failure when it comes to getting acclimated to the world outside of their home environment. The best way to approach it is to find the balance. Don't take your puppy to the dog park where there will be too much exposure to potentially infectious diseases. Still, they do need to get out and get exposed to other dogs and people outside. You can also have people come into the house to interact with your puppy.

Ensure that any other animals they're around are healthy and properly vaccinated. The other key aspect of socialization is not just getting them out there but also making sure it's a positive experience. The best way to do that is food, in most situations. We're not talking about giving food as a reward, but instead frequently giving them a small treat throughout an experience to make it more favorable for them. You want to get your dog used to being in the car; that's part of socialization in a way. When you're in the car with them, give them a treat every so often to mark it as a fun experience. When they're interacting with somebody new, have that person provide them with a treat. Make sure they're getting exposed to the world in a well-thought-out way and ensure the exposure is upbeat and fun for the puppy.

Should my dog be punished for bad behavior?

The short answer is no, absolutely not. An example of how people have implemented negative reinforcement is when a puppy goes to the bathroom in the house, they put the puppy's nose in the urine or spank them. Two components to this are important to understand. Firstly, research shows that dogs will not learn the behavior you want them to by teaching punishment-based behavior. You're not teaching them what you want by doing that. Secondly, you will potentially end up causing your pet to be more fearful and anxious in certain situations by implementing punishment-based behavior. It not only fails to teach them the appropriate behavior, but it's also causing more harm in the long run and leads to your pet being driven by fear.

Is my dog too old to be trained?

No. Of course, younger dogs typically tend to respond more readily to training, but older dogs can be trained with the right hands and appropriate techniques. With positive reinforcement-based training, an older dog can absolutely be trained.

What should I look for in a dog trainer?

This is super important, especially here in Dallas-Fort Worth. We have a lot of great trainers that we have vetted and used at our practice, but there is still a huge population of trainers using techniques that have been proven to be unhelpful and harmful to dogs. Fundamentally, we want to find a trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods, meaning rewarding the pet if it does what you want it to do. For instance, you give them a treat when they sit - that's positive reinforcement training. Not only should they use this technique, but it should be the foundation of what they do as trainers. Make sure that they're not just saying, "Yes, we do positive reinforcement," but at the same time, they're using a choke collar for some circumstances.

Make sure that they're not using any of those negative techniques. That could be challenging if you don't thoroughly understand these various techniques. In our practice, we understand these techniques well because we see a lot of behavior-related cases. One of my associates has vetted many trainers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and we have a list of trainers that we supply to our clients and that we have vetted. We are confident that these trainers will use the appropriate techniques as it is very important that they do so.

What vaccinations are needed for dog training classes?

We want to start training and socialization classes as early as possible. The primary thing that we recommend for young puppies that have just been purchased or adopted is to have their first core distemper-parvo vaccine and the kennel cough/Bordetella vaccine. If those two have been administered, we also like to check their feces for parasites to ensure they are treated and on parasite prevention because that's very common in puppies. We want to have the first round, which can be started between six to eight weeks, in order. Then we will go through the series of shots typically every four weeks until they're older than 16 weeks. But the training starts at the beginning of vaccine administration, not at the end.

What is environmental enrichment, and how can it help my dog's behavior?

Environmental enrichment is essentially creating an environment for the dog to live in that is as mentally, physically, and emotionally stimulating and engaging as possible. For a dog, that is as simple as having plenty of different types of toys that they enjoy interacting with. Even cycling those toys keeps them fresh and new and keeps dogs mentally and physically engaged. Regular walking is part of enrichment because you're taking them into new environments where they can use their senses. It's beneficial for them both behaviorally and emotionally to have various different stimulating things in their environment as opposed to just laying on the couch all day. Environmental enrichment can take many forms. Some of us, including myself, can't walk all of our dogs daily, and that's okay. We just have to come up with more creative ways in the house to keep them engaged. That's what environmental enrichment is about.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (817) 523-1139, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.