A Vet’s Guide to Common Canine Behavior Problems

Canine behavior problems are a growing concern in veterinary practice. There’s been an unprecedented rise in the number of client visits focused on these issues, ranging from aggressive behavior and excessive barking to destructive chewing and house-soiling. Clients who are frustrated with their dog’s bad behavior may find it difficult to follow treatment regimens. Behavioral problems can occasionally conceal underlying medical disorders, which can result in a missed diagnosis.  

Veterinarians need to have a solid foundation for identifying and treating common canine behavior problems to navigate these intricacies with ease and provide canine patients with the best treatment possible.  

Recommended course: Management of Common Canine Behavioral Problems  

Diagnostic considerations for canine behavior problems  

Before diving into behavioral modification strategies, it’s important to first understand the underlying reasons for canine behavioral disorders. Often, seemingly behavioral concerns have a medical cause. This is why a comprehensive diagnostic approach is required in all cases.  

The first step consists of gathering an extensive medical history and performing a thorough physical examination. The process of gathering information is essential in distinguishing the difference between behavioral problems and medical conditions that have similar symptoms.  

Gathering a medical history  

A focused conversation with the pet owner that explores the onset, duration, frequency, and context of the behavior can yield significant information. For example, sudden displays of aggressive behavior could indicate pain and discomfort, whereas inappropriate urination could indicate a urinary tract infection (UTI). Pay attention to recent changes in behavior, any potential triggers for the behavior, and the dog’s overall health. This includes previous medical history and current medications.  

For example, a normally well-behaved Labrador Retriever starts to exhibit aggressive behaviors toward family members. A thorough conversation with the pet owner shows that there have been no recent changes to the dog’s routine or immediate environment. However, a physical exam reveals dental disease and severe pain and discomfort. Addressing the dental issue through treatment or extraction can significantly improve the dog’s behavior.  

A behavior problem could be a pet’s way of calling for help because they are in pain. By making a full medical evaluation a top priority, veterinarians can get to the bottom of the problem and get patients on the road to recovery.  

Pinpointing the underlying cause  

A vital step in navigating the intricacies of behavioral issues in dogs is to establish a differential diagnosis. This entails figuring out every plausible reason for the displayed behavior. It is important to have a thorough understanding of medical problems that may present similar symptoms as behavioral issues.   

By incorporating an evaluation of both medical and behavioral factors into the diagnostic process, veterinarians can guarantee a more precise diagnosis and develop a treatment strategy that effectively targets the underlying cause of the issue.  

Common canine behaviors and their potential medical and behavioral causes  

Behavior   Medical Conditions   Behavioral Causes  
Destructive chewing and digging   Dental pain, ear infections, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can manifest as excessive chewing.   

Underlying medical conditions like arthritis or cognitive dysfunction can also trigger digging behaviors.  

Boredom, anxiety, separation anxiety, and a lack of appropriate outlets for chewing.   
Elimination problems (House-soiling and marking)   Urinary tract infections (UTIs), bladder stones, diabetes mellitus, and Cushing’s syndrome can all cause inappropriate urination.   Incomplete house training, submissive urination, anxiety-related elimination, and marking territory.   
Barking and excessive vocalization   Pain, neurological disorders, and cognitive dysfunction can sometimes lead to increased vocalization.   Territorial barking, attention-seeking behaviors, boredom, frustration, and anxiety-related vocalizations.   
Aggression   Pain, particularly from conditions like arthritis or otitis, can trigger aggression in dogs. Neurological disorders and even certain medications can also influence aggression.   Fear-based aggression, dominance-based aggression, possessive aggression (guarding food, toys, or people), and redirected aggression.   
Anxiety and phobias   Hypothyroidism, neurological disorders, and certain medications can manifest as anxiety-like symptoms.   Separation anxiety, noise phobias, and compulsive disorders.  

Effective client communication strategies for veterinarians  

A clear understanding of the behavior problem is essential for formulating a treatment plan that works. This hinges on a veterinarian’s ability to gather comprehensive information from clients. Here are some strategies to refine “the art of the ask.”  

  • Active listening: Effective communication starts with active listening. Dedicate quality time to fully understand your client’s concerns about their pet’s behavior. Encourage them to provide detailed descriptions, including when the behavior started and whether it has been consistent or happened in episodes. How often does it occur, and how severe is it? In what situations does it typically happen? Are there any specific triggers they’ve noticed? Finally, explore what management strategies they’ve already tried, highlighting what has worked and what hasn’t. This comprehensive information gathering will be necessary for establishing a clear picture of the problem and formulating an effective treatment plan.  
  • Open-ended questions: Instead of leading questions with “yes” or “no” answers, use open-ended questions that encourage elaboration. For example, instead of asking, “Does your dog bark at strangers?” ask, “Can you tell me more about how your dog interacts with people outside the home?”  
  • Clarification and reflection: Paraphrase and summarize your client’s statements to ensure understanding. This demonstrates attentiveness and allows for clarification of any inconsistencies.  

Setting realistic expectations in behavior modification: A collaborative approach  

Set realistic expectations for the behavioral modification journey. This collaborative approach fosters trust and empowers clients to participate actively in their pet’s recovery. Be transparent about the diagnostic process and the potential for underlying medical causes. Explain the treatment options clearly and concisely, outlining realistic timelines and potential challenges.  

Client commitment  

Behavior modification often requires dedicated effort from both the owner and the veterinarian. Discuss the importance of consistent implementation of training protocols and potential adjustments along the way.  

Collaboration is key  

Acknowledge that successful behavior modification often involves collaboration with certified animal behaviorists. Express your willingness to work in tandem with one, if necessary.  

Treatment options for common canine behavior problems: A multifaceted approach  

For particular canine behavioral issues, a detailed treatment plan can be created after a full diagnostic evaluation. Often, this includes a variety of strategies, with behavior modification acting as the cornerstone. Pharmacological therapies, however, can occasionally be a valuable help.  

Use of medications in addressing behavioral problems in dogs  

Medications can be a useful tool for controlling canine behavior problems. Still, it is important to emphasize that they should be used in addition to, rather than instead of, behavior modification. Here is essential information regarding the integration of pharmaceuticals into your treatment plan:  

  • Targeted approach: Medications should be carefully chosen based on the behavior problem and the root cause (if known). For example, dogs with separation anxiety may benefit from antidepressants, and dogs with phobias may benefit from anti-anxiety drugs.  
  • Behavior modification: The key to long-term relief from medication is often behavior modification. Techniques for changing behavior, such as desensitization, counter-conditioning, and positive reinforcement training, should be the primary focus. Pharmaceuticals can assist in regulating the dog’s emotional condition, which makes them easier to train, enhances their willingness to undergo training, and reduces the likelihood of impulsive reactions.  
  • Temporary support: Medication should be used temporarily to allow for behavior change. Under a veterinarian’s supervision, medication dosages may be progressively decreased and ultimately discontinued as the dog progresses.  
  • Clear client communication: Maintain an open line of communication with your client concerning the use of medication. Make sure to address the following: potential adverse effects, the significance of regular dosing, and the expected timeline for improvement.  

Cornerstones of behavior modification techniques for dogs 

Behavior modification for canine patients is a multi-pronged approach. It often involves a combination of techniques, with the following three serving as the foundation for long-term success.  

Behavior Modification Techniques   Description   Example  
Positive reinforcement training   This reward-based approach focuses on associating desired behaviors with positive consequences. By consistently rewarding good choices, we encourage the dog to repeat those behaviors. Treats, praise, petting, and playtime can all be used as positive reinforcement.   A dog exhibiting leash reactivity barks and lunges at other dogs during walks: Positive reinforcement training involves rewarding calm behavior on leash with treats or praise as the dog sees other dogs in the distance. Gradually, the dog learns that a relaxed approach leads to positive outcomes.  
Counter-conditioning   This technique aims to change the dog’s emotional response to a specific trigger. The dog’s association is gradually changed by pairing the previously feared or hated stimulus with something good.  


A dog with noise phobias exhibits anxiety during thunderstorms: Playing records of thunder at a low volume while giving the dog treats or favorite toys is called counter-conditioning. Over time, the sound of thunder develops into a reliable indicator of positive events, diminishing the dog’s anxiety reaction.  
Desensitization   This method entails systematically and progressively introducing the dog to the stimulus under controlled conditions, first at a minimal level of intensity and subsequently increasing it as the dog becomes more capable of tolerating it. The objective is to acclimate the dog to the trigger, enabling them to maintain a state of calmness in its proximity.   A dog with separation anxiety exhibits destructive behavior when left alone: The process of desensitization involves progressively increasing the dog’s alone time, beginning with a few seconds and working up to smaller intervals. The dog learns to associate being alone with positive experiences, reducing anxiety.  

When to refer a veterinary behaviorist  

While these strategies can effectively address many canine behavioral problems, there are situations where seeking additional expertise becomes crucial. This is especially true in complex cases.   

Pet behaviorists possess the specialized knowledge and experience necessary to address complex cases involving behavioral issues that have not shown sufficient improvement with initial treatment plans. Animal behaviorists can conduct in-depth evaluations, formulating individualized treatment plans, and offering continuous assistance.  

Preventative measures for canine behavior problems: Building a strong foundation  

Employing proactive strategies can significantly help reduce the probability of behavioral issues developing in dogs. In canines, the important developmental window for socialization usually occurs between the ages of 3 and 16 weeks. Puppies are quite open to developing good relationships with new people, animals, and surroundings during this time. Adequate socialization during this critical period establishes the foundation for confident and adaptable pets.  

The benefits of early socialization  

  • Reduced fear and anxiety: Exposure to a diverse range of stimuli in a happy environment aid in the development of coping mechanisms in puppies, reducing fear and anxiety and enabling them to handle unfamiliar situations in the future. This reduces the likelihood of fear-driven actions such as violence, phobias, and reactivity.  
  • Improved communication skills: When puppies play with other dogs, they learn the right way to behave and communicate with others. This encourages good relationships and lowers the chances of future conflicts.  
  • Enhanced trainability: When puppies are socialized with different people and places, they usually feel more at ease when being handled and trained, which makes them more open to learning new behaviors.  

Effective socialization can be achieved through various avenues, including puppy kindergarten classes, planned playdates with friendly, well-socialized dogs, and enjoyable experiences to create positive associations.    

Early puppy training and behavior management  

Socialization is the first step toward having a well-adjusted dog, but early puppy training and behavior control techniques make good behaviors even stronger and stop bad habits from starting. Positive routines and basic commands are best taught in a puppy’s first few months.   

Early training and management can help reduce problem behaviors and strengthen the human-animal bond. A puppy familiar with basic commands and positive reinforcement training is more likely to be receptive to future training sessions. Some key areas to focus on include potty training, basic commands (like “sit,” “stay,” “come,” and “down”), bite inhibition, environmental management, and mental stimulation.   

Client education: Preventive measures for behavioral problems  

Beyond socialization and early training, educating clients about common canine behavior problems and prevention techniques is key. By encouraging open communication and giving advice, veterinarians can empower dog owners to proactively address potential challenges and promote optimal canine well-being.  

Dog owners should be educated about the stages of puppy development and potential behavioral changes they might encounter, like normal chewing, barking, and exploration behaviors, allowing them to set realistic expectations and respond appropriately.   

Veterinarians should discuss early red flags of behavioral issues such as excessive vocalization, destructiveness, or separation anxiety. Clients should also be encouraged to seek professional guidance if they spot early warning signs, allowing for earlier intervention and better outcomes.  

The power of collaboration  

Veterinarians should never underestimate the power of collaboration. Through fostering collaboration with clients and providing them with comprehensive education on behavior prevention, veterinarians may greatly influence the overall long-term welfare of canine patients. By possessing knowledge and employing proactive techniques, owners can establish better connections with their pets and cultivate a more peaceful living environment.