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Deciphering canine behaviour

As published in Canadian Dogs Annual
Deciphering canine behaviour

“If only he could talk.” It’s a common lament, especially when a dog is “misbehaving” or otherwise acting out of character and his person doesn’t know why. A study of body language can help, but sometimes the behaviour itself can tell us the most about what’s going on – that is, if we pick up on the clues. Here’s a closer look at canine behaviour – and some tips on deciphering what it might be saying about your dog’s health and well being.

1. Hyperactivity and destructive behaviour

Hyperactivity is normal in a puppy, and some breeds are known to be more highly strung than others. And if your dog bounces off the walls when you come home from work, that’s a good thing. But what about an adult dog who is constantly overactive, sometimes to the point of destruction?

Most often, this is a result of not enough exercise. The majority of dogs should be outside for either walks or play time for at least 30 minutes a day. Larger, more active “working” breeds such as Labradors, shepherds and huskies need much more exercise time for both their physical and mental health. Play fetch or go for a jog. Your dog needs to burn up extra energy in a positive way outside, rather than in a destructive way inside.

If your dog is exhibiting destructive behaviour when left alone in the house, this may be a sign of separation anxiety. He may be telling you that being left alone makes him uneasy and he craves your company to the point of causing pathologic behaviour. Cases such as these take a lot of time and effort to control. A starting point is, again, to give the dog more exercise. He may also need a crate to call his “safe haven” when alone in the house.

Provide him with acceptable chew toys such as Kongs; filling these nearly indestructible toys with treats such as peanut butter will make their entertainment value last a long time, keeping your dog occupied and out of trouble. Providing your dog with more things to think about can help as well. Teach him tricks, take him to obedience classes, or even introduce him to a sport such as canine agility. All these can re-direct some of his anxiety and excess energy into something constructive. Also, creating a regular routine for bathroom breaks and meals gives your dog some stability in his life, and that can lessen anxiety.

2. Aggression towards you

A good-natured dog that suddenly becomes aggressive towards you has recently experienced something that caused him to act this way. Dogs do not suddenly wake up one morning and decide to bite their people out of the blue. There is almost always a logical reason for canine behaviours; we just have to figure out what it is.

First and foremost, from a health standpoint, always try to rule out pain as the cause of aggression. Note clues such as when and how he was aggressive toward you. What were the circumstances? How long has it been going on? A dog that experiences a short, brief amount of pain will react in a surprised manner that either turns into a feeling of defensiveness or fear. Depending on the dog’s personality, this may be manifested as a yelp, a snap, a growl or hiding. A trip to the veterinarian will help uncover any potential medical reasons behind this behaviour.

3. Inappetence and lethargy

A normally active dog that is suddenly moping around the dog park is sending you a very strong message: I don’t feel good. Take note of how he is holding himself. Is his back hunched, indicating a sour stomach? Is he reluctant to move, suggesting possible joint pain?

Dogs can have “off” days just like us, when they may not feel as lively as they normally do. But if your dog is acting more than just a little slow, and turns up his nose at dinner, these are big signs that things are not right. If your dog misses two meals in a 12-hour period, take him to the vet. Something is wrong.

Characterize your dog’s sudden feeding change. Does he merely eat slowly, as if his mouth was hurting him, possibly indicating dental problems, or does he ignore his bowl completely? Excessive drooling is a sign of nausea. Does he still drink water? Has there been any vomiting? These are some of the questions your veterinarian will ask you.

4. Accidents in the house

If your dog starts having accidents inside, start by ruling out medical reasons by taking him to the vet. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are a common problem in dogs and cause a frequent and urgent need to urinate that sometimes cannot wait until the evening walk. Cystoliths, or bladder stones, can also be a culprit, causing bladder irritation. These can be found either by the presence of crystals in the urine or on radiographs. Sometimes a large stone can be felt on abdominal palpation.

If your dog has been given a clean bill of health, then his accidents (both urination and defecation) may be a sign of anxiety. Has anything changed in your environment recently? A new baby or animal, moving to a new house, even sometimes a new bed can trigger unease in a particularly sensitive dog.

5. Suddenly spooky

If your usually laid-back dog is suddenly fearful of something, a change has occurred. If he seems frightened by a particular location, try to remember if there were any loud noises that might have scared him – a gunshot if you were in the woods, a car backfiring, or an unfriendly new neighbor dog. Also be on the lookout for anything your dog might have injured himself on – a piece of glass, a slick patch of ice, or maybe a stray fly ball from someone’s baseball practice. It might take time for him to regain his trust of that area or situation. Bring treats and reward your dog for being brave when you next encounter this same location.

Watch your dog in his home environment to see if he acts normally there. Sometimes, if an older dog is losing his hearing or sight, he may begin to feel jumpy. During this adjustment phase, help your dog by keeping things as low-key in the household as possible. Older dogs benefit from twice yearly veterinary check-ups to catch such agerelated changes more quickly.

Understanding your dog is more than merely making sure his tail is constantly wagging. Changes in his behaviour and personality are his way of saying that something has changed, and this is how he is responding because of it. Learning how to identify these changes and correctly deal with his responses can help you better understand and assist your dog.

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