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So, your dog barks when you leave him, or he growls at the vets. Maybe he lunges at other dogs or tries to bite you when you groom him. These behaviours are seen as unacceptable and are labelled as such- the dog often being described as naughty or bad. However, seeing the behaviour as the problem is the real problem – it is important to understand what the behaviour is really all about and what it might be telling us!

As a species, we humans are very judgemental of behaviour. We label them as good, bad, right or wrong, or indeed naughty! We even criminalise some behaviour (which is important for the survival of the civilised community we seek to build). This view of behaviour, and the negative labelling of behaviour that comes with it, can lead us to believing punishment is what is needed but this is really unhelpful when we direct that view towards our animals. Here is the real problem – this judgemental bias towards behaviour means we can often overlook the fact that many of these ‘naughty’ behaviours are simply ways for the dog to communicate their emotional response to what is happening and a real need to get relief!

When the stress system activates to a high level, we are more likely to act reflexively; that is, we act with very little rational input. For example, if you don’t like spiders much and one came into vision you are unlikely to ‘think about it’ and most likely just react. Your reaction (jumping, screaming, shouting etc) is an expression of your elevated stressed state. If I then gave you little chance to escape from the situation your stress levels would likely increase and behaviour get more animated.  Is your behaviour bad? Are you being naughty? If someone told you off or even punished the behaviour would that help?  Very unlikely – you might stop doing what you are doing but you feel no differently about the spider. Indeed, you might be even more stressed by the next spider that comes along. This is no different for a dog that reacts to being left or reacts to towards another dog etc If they get stressed in these contexts, they are likely to react. So, their behaviour is merely the communication of their levels of stress. If no ‘help’ or relief comes they are likely to escalate their reaction over time.

If we punish a dog’s behaviour that was stress driven, all we are doing is supressing the communication: we are not listening to what the dog is communicating or helping them to cope any better in that situation. I worked with a dog recently who used to lunge and growl at children. The owners had employed a trainer who used punishment-based methods on the dog. After just two sessions the dog stopped the growling and the owners were really pleased- they even left a 5 star review. 8 months later the dog bit a child. This was an inevitability as although they had punished the growling away, they did nothing to address the dogs emotional state around children. They had simply taken the batteries out of the smoke alarm! The dog growling was the alarm to the fact the dog was struggling around children. The owners were so upset when they realised the reality of what their dog had been trying to communicate and angry that they had been taken in by the advice of the trainer.

Changing how we view animal behaviour, especially with our dogs, can hugely improve our ability to help them when they need it. If we see the behaviour as the problem, we are more likely to punish it. If we see the behaviour as communication, we are more likely to listen to it. Most importantly, if we see the behaviour as the animal trying to communicate that they are struggling we are more likely to want to try and help.

Pet Remedy is a product that recognises the role of stress in many unwanted pet behaviours. Working alongside behavioural therapy, it can help to improve the animal’s ability to cope, and thus address the behaviours the animal was using to communicate its stress. When looking for professional help please check out INTODogs (www.intodog.org) or ICAN (http://companionanimal.network) and search for local professionals. Other reputable sources for professionals – search APBC, ABTC, IMDT, KCAI and VSPDT.

Andrew Hale Bsc. Andrew is a Certified Animal Behaviourist working in South Devon as Train Positive (www.trainpositive.co.uk). He is the Chair of the Association of INTODogs and the behavioural consultant for Animal In Distress a local rescue charity in Devon.