Imagine making your living training some of the world’s most stubborn and unruly dogs. Peering over your shoulder each week are millions of viewers in 40 countries wondering if you or the misbehaving pup will win the battle of wits. Victoria Stilwell, star of Animal Planet’s popular television series, "It’s Me or the Dog," says the challenge isn’t as difficult as it may seem.
The key, she says, is to stay positive.
"There’s a common myth that when a dog misbehaves, it’s trying to be dominant, be the alpha male or the leader of the pack. This actually couldn’t be further from the truth. The dog is really acting out of insecurity, not a desire to lead the household," she says. Stilwell insists that using punishment to correct behavior can sometimes lead to even more problems.
"Let’s say your dog is reactive on the leash toward other dogs," she explains. "One of the popular punishments is to forcibly put the dog on its side and hold him down until he calms down. Most dogs react to others because they’re insecure. So, when you hold an insecure dog down and try to make him submit to you, you’re actually making the dog even more insecure. It may look to you like the dog has calmed down and you’ve been successful, but he really hasn’t learned anything. I guarantee you the dog will continue to be reactive some time in the future."
Stilwell says it’s important to understand the world from your dog’s point of view. She actually encourages clients to lie down on the floor and look up to see how big and scary things can appear to small dogs.
Then, when behavioral problems arise, resist the temptation to scold or punish, Stilwell says. Instead, focus on the reasons causing the dog to misbehave. For example, if barking is a problem, find out why your dog is barking.
"Is she bored? Is it because she’s anxious? Is it habit? Is she distressed?" Stilwell asks.
"If your dog is bored, then it’s up to you to give her more mental and physical stimulation. Take the dog out more. Exercise her more. Don’t leave her in your back yard just to bark away because you’re then just reinforcing that behavior."
Separation anxiety is another common behavioral problem. Stilwell says putting your dog in a crate while you’re away can make the situation worse. One method she recommends is to go out the door and come right back in. Repeat this 30 to 40 times so that dog becomes bored of you leaving and isn’t anxious anymore.
"Or you can exercise the dog just before you leave or leave a great chew toy, like a Kong that’s stuffed with food, to give your dog something to do."
Stilwell says that digging is an instinctive behavior and is very difficult to correct. So, if you can’t always be outside with the dog to distract him from digging, she recommends creating a special place where your dog is allowed to play in the dirt.
"Hide great toys in that digging place, and it will satisfy your dog’s natural desire to dig without him being destructive to the rest of your yard."
What’s the most frustrating experience she’s ever had when training a dog?
"The dogs never frustrate me," Stilwell confesses, "but the people do. When I work with owners and propose a solution, oftentimes, they will work on it for a week or two and say, ‘Wow! This is amazing!’ Then they stop. They haven’t given that dog the adequate time to learn, and the bad behavior then comes back. So, you have to stick to it. It just takes a little bit of time and a lot of patience."
Behavior Problems May Be Health-Related
Even the best trained dog will misbehave from time to time. If your pet’s behavior suddenly changes, however, and he acts out of character, he may be suffering from a health problem.
Dr. Ron Hendrikson, a veterinarian in Norwalk, OH, says, "Dogs can’t use words to tell us when they are sick, but their behavior and body language can speak volumes." He says the following behaviors may indicate your dog is sick:
Change in eating habits
Urinating or defecating indoors
Urinating more frequently than normal
Drinking unusually large amounts of water
Excessive whining or whimpering
Constantly licking or biting an area of her body
Uncharacteristically irritable or aggressive behavior
Won’t stop pacing
Has little energy and wants to be left alone
"Don’t ever hesitate to call your veterinarian if your dog isn’t acting normal and you have questions or concerns," Hendrikson advises. To find a veterinary hospital that meets the standards of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) click here.