Behavior blunders put Fido in hot water

Shelters are packed with misunderstood pooches


Man’s best friend. . .
Furbaby. . .
Fuzz face. . .
Companion. . .
Helper. . .
Working partner. . .
The dog in all its guises fits these descriptions and more.

Over generations dogs have been integrated into human society. Today, their jobs have changed – tests and trials that prove innate canine skills are more common than careers as hunters and herders, and most of the nearly 60 million dogs in US homes are family companions above all else.

Unfortunately, dog-and-people relationships are not all peaches and cream. Dog bites are a major problem, dog owners often misunderstand dog behavior, and communities are often in an uproar over loose dogs, destructive dogs, noisy dogs, and inconsiderate owners of bratty dogs. As a result, city councils pass laws restricting or banning breeds or limiting the number of dogs per household; insurance companies decline to insure some breeds; and people become afraid of certain breeds or of medium-to-large dogs in general. The panic that ensues causes the number of medium-to-large dogs in shelters and rescues to increase as owners face insurance cancellations and the legal ramifications of keeping even well-behaved pets.

The key

A knowledge of canine behavior can help alleviate the problems that can plague a dog-rich society. Dog bites can be prevented, dogs can be kept out of shelters, and more dogs can find new homes or stay in the homes they already have if owners understand what makes Rover tick.

Studies show that more than 35 million US households own one or more dogs. According to a 1996 study from the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy, about four million dogs enter US animal shelters each year. Although the number of shelter dog deaths is much lower than it was 10 years ago, more than two million dogs die in shelters each year because there’s no one to adopt them and no place to put them.

Recent studies show that pets that are sexually intact, are acquired at one-to-three years of age or are less than six months of age, have never been to obedience class, and spend much of the day in crates or in the backyard are at high risk of surrender to shelters. Owners of these pets did not know what to expect when they acquired the puppy or young adult dog, and they were unable to find the help they needed to resolve the problems that ensued. These high risk dogs often have one general thing in common: they go beyond a lack of manners to destructive behaviors ranging from soiling the rug and chewing the furniture to excavating the yard, escaping, or acting aggressively towards family and friends.

Normal dog behavior

It’s no big revelation that dog behavior is what makes Fido act like a dog. The eye-opener is that there are gaps between dog behavior and people expectations that can have serious ramifications. The most common puppy and young dog blunders are house-soiling, destructive chewing, aggression, and running away – natural behaviors gone awry. If these gaffes can be prevented or corrected, Fido and his family have a better chance at happily ever after.


Formerly known as housebreaking, housetraining requires patience and a bit of ingenuity, but can be accomplished in a relatively short time – as little as a few days with dogs six months or older and often in less than two weeks with puppies 12-16 weeks of age. Puppies from breeders who raise litters in the house often have a head start on housetraining because they are paper-trained or taken outside regularly. Puppies from pet stores, commercial kennels, and animal shelters can be a bit more difficult because they live in cages and have nowhere else to relieve themselves.

Housetraining tools are baby gates or other barriers, a crate, a leash, and some dog treats.

Dogs that are not housetrained should be fed on a schedule so their bowels become regular and movements are predictable. They should be taken outside after meals, after naps, first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

Dogs that are not housetrained should be confined to rooms in which humans are present so that the least signal that a puddle or pile is imminent can be observed. The pup should then be taken outside on a leash, told to “potty,” and given praise and a treat when done. No puddle or pile, no playtime, no treat, no praise – the dog should be confined to the crate for a few minutes, then taken outside again.

Housetraining a dog is an adult job; children are too easily distracted to keep an eye on the untrained dog and too easily tempted to praise, treat, and play even when success is not achieved.

Things that interfere with housetraining: leaving a dog crated too long, waiting too long to get started teaching the routine, lack of consistency, and giving too much freedom too soon.

Destructive chewing

Puppies chew to help them teethe and to explore their surroundings. Older dogs chew to relieve boredom.

To prevent destructive chewing:

Appropriate chew toys can include everything from a fresh or frozen carrot to the various chew bones, balls, and weirdly-shaped objects available in pet supply stores.

Running away

Again, prevention is far easier to manage than the recipe for a cure. Tools for teaching dogs to stay home are a leash, a fence, and enrollment at an obedience class.

Unless confined to an enclosed area, Buster should be walked on a leash so he doesn’t get the opportunity to take off. Sturdy fences will keep Fido home and provide a barrier to temptation. Visible fences also keep wandering dogs and neighborhood cats and kids from entering the yard.

Obedience classes provide techniques for canine management, techniques such as teaching Sunny to sit before going outside so she’s not as likely to dive through an open door. Obedience class instructors can also answer questions about blossoming problems.

A dog that already indulges his wanderlust by digging under or climbing over the fence should never be allowed outside without supervision. If he persists in digging or climbing even when supervised or if he must be occasionally left outside alone, installation of a hot wire – a wire charged by an electric fence battery – at the top of the fence for climbers and the bottom of the fence for diggers may be the answer to keeping the dog at home.

A word of caution: a tether is not an answer to keeping Rover at home. Dogs become very jealous of their space when tied outside and they can become aggressive to children or animals that enter that space. If he must be outside on his own, even for short periods, Rover needs a shaded pen with a dog house.


Again, prevention is easier than cure. Puppies that are taught good manners from the git-go are far less likely to become aggressive than dogs that are allowed to climb the dominance ladder or dogs that are teased into fearful behavior patterns. Owners of potentially aggressive dogs must be vigilant; many of these dogs do not like children in general or a few children in particular. Some of them love the children in the family but are quirky with visiting friends.

To avoid behaviors that can lead to aggression, make sure the pup learns from day one that the humans in the family are in charge of his destiny. Feed him every meal – don’t leave his bowl on the floor for leisure dining – and pick up the dish in 15 minutes whether it’s empty or not. Take him out – don’t give him free access to outside. Require him to sit, lie down, walk on a leash, stay behind a gate or in a crate – don’t give him carte blanche to do his own thing.

Although recent research indicates that rough play may not cause aggression, it is wise to shun such play because it can encourage aggression in some dogs. It is especially important that children not indulge in rough and tumble play or tug-of-war with a pushy dog.

Supervise all contact between the dog and the children!

Teach children how to care for and love the dog, not so that the kids will do the actual work but so they will understand that dogs respond to kindness and dislike teasing and rough treatment. Among the lessons: Dogs are threatened by hugging, squeezing, or grabbing of their body parts and often respond by snapping, nipping, or with full-fledged bites.

Running, screaming, and squealing can trigger prey drive in dogs and result in an injury to the child.

Dogs as pets

Descended from and related to wolves, the wild canids that live in social packs and cooperate in hunting and raising litters, dogs are at once alien creatures and highly adapted (and adaptable) human playmates and partners. Thousands of years ago, dogs gave up their wild ways to live among people, and we got the better of the deal. In exchange for food, shelter, and nurturing, the dog became a working partner, a hunter, guardian, herder, and dispatcher of vermin. He powered sleds and carts, accompanied herds and flocks to market, and, when man gained leisure time, provided entertainment and opportunities to prove owners’ abilities in breeding and prowess in training.

Today the presence of nearly 60 million dogs in American households pays tribute to the special bond that exists between our two species. Owners and potential owners can extend the same chance at connection for many of the four million dogs that enter shelters and rescues each year with some attention to canine behavior and the fit between dogs and people in the family.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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