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Why Is My Dog Misbehaving? 14 Potential Causes

Adrienne is a certified professional dog trainer, dog behavior consultant and former veterinarian assistant for an AAHA animal hospital.

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What Causes Dogs to Misbehave?

If you're wondering what causes dogs to misbehave, you are likely dealing with a dog who is manifesting undesirable behaviors and would like to know what is going through his mind.

Understanding why dogs misbehave though is not always an easy process. Indeed, there are professionals who have made understanding dog behavior problems their primary line of work.

Before taking a look at some common reasons why dogs misbehave, it helps to gain a clearer picture of what qualifies as "bad behaviors" for most dog owners, and the importance of not falling into anthropomorphic traps.

The Problems With Anthropomorphism

As humans, we are often prone to attributing human traits to our pets, and this can often blur our pets' real intent.

For example, many dog owners believe that dogs "revenge poop" or scratch the door "out of spite," because they weren't taken along on a car ride, when in reality they're suffering from deep anxiety.

Our tendency to attribute human traits to animals is known as anthropomorphism, and this can profoundly get in the way of truly understanding our canine companions.

The Problem With Incorrect Labeling

Although things are getting better from this aspect, there is still promulgation of the idea that dogs who misbehave are doing so because they are "dominant" and trying to be alpha.

This incorrect labeling has led to not recognizing the actual root of the behavior and has caused damaging effects on the dog and human relationship on many levels.

Fortunately, authority organizations are helping debunk these old beliefs. The Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has been helping dog owners steer away from trainers and behavior consultants suggesting outdated training and behavior modification methods.

Many dogs misbehave when they're exposed to over stimulating situations

Many dogs misbehave when they're exposed to over stimulating situations

A List of Common Dog Misbehaviors

If your dog is "misbehaving," most likely he is acting in a way that you find unacceptable. You are likely struggling with the problem, wondering what is going on in your dog's mind, and most of all, you're hoping for a solution.

Rest assured though, that you are not alone. Many dog owners struggle with some type of behavior problem, and sadly, sometimes this culminates with the dog being relinquished to a shelter.

According to research published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, these are the most common behavioral reasons why dogs are surrendered to shelters.

  • Aggression towards humans
  • Aggression towards animals
  • Has killed other animals
  • Fear of various things
  • Chasing cars
  • Chasing people
  • Destructive behavior (indoor or outdoor)
  • Attention-seeking behavior
  • Overactivity
  • Nipping and biting
  • Eating feces
  • House soiling
  • Escaping
  • Competition with other people/animals
  • Doesn't get along with other pets
  • Jumping on people
  • Unfriendly behavior
  • Asking to go outside excessively
  • Doesn't listen/"obey"
  • Pica (eating non-food items)
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Why Is My Dog Suddenly Misbehaving?

A dog who has been always been rather mellow, and now starts misbehaving out of the blue, should raise a red flag.

You may therefore need to put on your investigative hat to find out what may be going on. However, consider that sometimes, the behavior change hasn't really happened very suddenly.

It could be you have been too busy and missed subtle signs until things started getting more evident. In any case, below are several reasons dogs may "suddenly" start misbehaving.

1) Something Medically Is Going on

Certain medical problems can sometimes cause dogs to behave in uncharacteristic ways.

A well-house-trained dog who suddenly starts peeing around the house can be suffering from a bladder infection or bladder stones. A well-house trained dog who suddenly starts pooping in the house may be suffering from digestive issues.

An older dog who suddenly starts suffering from anxiety when left alone may be developing vision, hearing or other problems.

A dog who suddenly reacts fearfully when in the dark or barks at familiar people from a distance, may have developed a vision problem, and a dog who suddenly growls upon being picked up or touched, may be suffering from pain.

Another example? A dog who eats his own feces may be suffering from some nutritional or medical issue.

2) Recent Disruptive Happenings

In general, behavior issues don't just erupt out of the blue, unless there is a valid reason. It's therefore important to consider anything that has occurred recently that may have wreaked havoc on your dog's life.

A move can cause dogs to temporarily have accidents in a new home, and a recent scuffle with another dog can cause dogs to react defensively towards other dogs. If there is a new baby in the house, or if another pet has passed away, that can also cause stress and related behavior changes.

Sometimes, you may have not be there to witness what may have occurred. A dog may have been traumatized by hearing noises when left alone at home and this can trigger noise anxiety or a person may have been harassing your dog when he was out in the yard.

Has your dog started peeing on the porch or not wanting to go out when he used to go in the yard? If you have recently erected an electronic fence that may be a culprit.

3) The Onset of Adolescence

Although these changes may occur more gradually, you may have failed to notice subtle signs, until the most evident ones have surfaced. It's just that puppies seem to grow in the blink of an eye and time flies when you're having fun!

So if your puppy has grown and now you have noticed that he has started to misbehave, you can blame the onset of adolescence.

Adolescence in dogs, just as it happens in humans, can be a challenging time and many dog owners struggle with dogs misbehaving. Chewing, mounting, pulling on the leash, appearing distracted and not coming when called can be often seen.

4) The Role of Hormones

If you own an intact male or an intact female dog, meaning that they weren't altered (spayed or neutered), you may notice sudden behavior changes due to the effects of hormones.

In male dogs, hormones can trigger urine marking, escape attempts from the house, and scuffles with other dogs at the dog park.

Intact female dogs may also start urine marking, asking to be let out more frequently, and they may become more irritable around their estrus cycle.

5) The Honeymoon Period Is Over

And then you have recently adopted dogs who have been on their best behaviors for weeks, and then suddenly, you seem to notice that they start misbehaving.

This is not unusual. Recently adopted dogs take some time to adjust to their new homes, and they may not show "their true colors" until several days, weeks or months have passed.

This time, during which dogs are behaving really well post-adoption, is often referred to as the "honeymoon period in dogs."

It's normal for young puppies to nip

It's normal for young puppies to nip

Other Reasons Your Dog Is Misbehaving

Of course, there can be several other reasons why dogs may misbehave. This is just a general list of some common reasons that may prompt dogs to misbehave. Only after ruling out medical problems and through direct observations one may better deduce the root of the problem.

6) Instinctive Dog Behaviors

In several cases, what we consider "misbehavior" in reality may be just a natural behavior that dogs carry out.

There are many behaviors that are a normal part of the dog's repertoire of behaviors. In other words, it's just the dog "being a dog."

For example, most dogs when exposed to dirt and certain earthy smells will want to dig, and this is instinctive, hard-wired behavior, especially in certain breeds (like doxies and many small terriers).

Many dogs will bark, whine or howl when left alone simply because it's an ingrained desire to want to follow their families. Dogs are social animals and you cannot totally suppress their desire to follow, however, you can teach them how to better cope.

Puppies are hard-wired to nip, they explore the world with their mouth, and engage in play by nipping, not to mention, the notorious teething stage.

7) Lack of Exercise

Many dogs are adopted based on looks without considering their history and what they were selectively bred for.

This leads to dog owners struggling with dogs who have too much energy, have strong herding instincts and that excess energy must go somewhere, and therefore, culminates into the manifestation of problem behaviors such as excessive nipping, jumping, barking, chewing and other destructive behaviors.

8) Lack of Mental Stimulation

On top of needing exercise, dogs need a good amount of mental stimulation during the day.

Often dogs are left alone in the home with nothing to do. Dogs don't watch soap operas and can't play games of Sudoku to keep occupied, so their boredom quickly leads to destructive behaviors such as excessive digging, chewing the couch or scratching at doors.

9) A Quest for Attention

Dogs have basic needs for exercise and mental stimulation, but they also crave social attention and quality time with their owners. If you are away at work for a good part of the day, your dog may desperately crave attention.

When you come home from work, that's your dog's perk of the day, so imagine his disappointment if once home, all you do is take a shower, feed him and then sit on the couch to watch TV.

Dogs who crave attention may therefore start barking when you sit on the couch in hopes of getting any type of interaction and attention to you.

Consider that, from an attention-deprived dog, any form of attention will please them, even if it's attention of the negative type (like scolding your dog, or pushing him away).

10) Lack of Training

Left to their own devices, dogs who receive no training will carry out natural doggy behaviors that we may find annoying. Barking, digging, chewing, pawing, begging, you name it.

Untrained dogs will also show no restraint or level of impulse control and have little frustration tolerance, so their behaviors may quickly drive an owner nuts.

It can be said that training teaches dogs how to better behave around us. It teaches them the art of delayed gratification and how to act in a socially-acceptable manner.

11) Inadvertent Reinforcement

Sometimes, dog owners inadvertently reinforce problem behaviors without realizing it.

If your dog is barking in hopes of receiving food at the table and you give it, don't be surprised if your dog keeps barking at you or even starts nipping at your hands or pawing next time you sit at the table.

If your dog steals your socks from the floor and you start chasing him, don't be surprised if your dog starts to steal stuff from you more and more, just for the sake of having you engaged in a fun keep-away game.

If your dog isn't allowed on the couch normally, but one day he's sick and you let him on, don't be surprised if the next day he'll jump up uninvited.

Dogs often engage in the behaviors they do simply because we reinforce them.

12) The Impact of Stress/Anxiety

Oftentimes, when dogs are claimed to be unmanageable, hyper and out of control, there is stress at the bottom of the behavior.

Dogs struggle if there is too much going on in their lives and have little time to recover from the stress. They are at the mercy of trigger stacking.

Dogs enjoy routines, they thrive on consistency and knowing what to expect. Too much overstimulation and inconsistencies can wreak havoc in their lives.

13) Lack of Sleep

Dogs need a good amount of sleep to recover from all the stress and overstimulation in their lives. A good amount of sleep also helps consolidate what they have learned during the day.

It goes without saying that we should let sleeping dogs lie and grant them the benefit of restorative sleep. Puppies and dogs can get particularly cranky from lack of sleep which causes them to misbehave.

14) Hash Training Methods

A study has shown that the use of harsh, confrontational training techniques may lead to dogs responding aggressively.

In particular, hitting or kicking the dog, growling at the dog, forcibly removing something from the dog's mouth, alpha rolls, staring contests, “dominance downs" and scruff shakes evoked an aggressive response from at least a quarter of the dogs.

How Do Behavior Professionals Find the Underlying Cause of Dogs Misbehaving?

Behavior professionals may use what is known as a functional analysis, which entails identifying the relationship between stimuli and responses and revealing the ultimate function of the dog's behavior so to develop the most precise and effective treatment plan.

To better understand dogs' behavior it, therefore, helps to take a closer look at what happens right before the behavior and what happens right after. The relationship between these can provide a clearer insight into the underlying function and motivation for the behavior.

Antecedent

The antecedent is what prompts the behavior. It encompasses anything that occurs before the dog misbehaves.

For example, the noise of the doorbell can trigger a bout of barking, and therefore it's said to be the antecedent for the barking behavior.

The sight of dirt and its smell can trigger the dog to dig, and therefore it's said to be the antecedent for the digging behavior.

An encounter with guests may evoke jumping behaviors, therefore, the presence of guests is the antecedent for the jumping behavior.

Behavior

Behavior is what occurs after exposure to the antecedent. It's important deciding whether there is a single problem behavior to tackle or whether there are multiple forms of the behavior that may need to be tackled as well.

For example, a dog barks at the doorbell. What needs to be addressed? Any form of vocalization? Does the owner want sustained barking to stop but is OK with just 2 to 3 alert barks? Does the owner want complete quiet or is whining still OK?

Consequence

Most dog behaviors occur because the dog gets some benefit out of it. The behavior may yield attention or something the dog perceives as pleasant.

For instance, the sight and smell of a steak on the counter is the antecedent for counter surfing, and eating the steak is the positively reinforcing consequence.

When the consequence is positively reinforcing, the behavior strengthens and is likely to repeat. The behavior soon establishes and becomes more frequent in the dog's behavior repertoire.

Dogs also engage in behaviors to get out of sticky situations. In this case, the behavior helps them avoid something unpleasant.

For instance, the sight of the owner leaving the home may be the antecedent for barking, and the barking may help the dog "vent" his feelings of solitude and frustration, so this barking is a negatively reinforcing consequence.

When the consequence is negatively reinforcing, the behavior strengthens and is likely to repeat, quickly establishing and soon becoming a habit.

Not All Is Cut and Dried

Of course, not always dog behaviors can be neatly categorized into sectors and not always a specific protocol can be applied in a manual-like manner.

Dogs may act the way they do for a variety of reasons, and sometimes the reinforcement is internal; in other words, self-reinforcing and therefore, not mediated by other things or people in their environment.

Training is a good way to teach your dog how to behave appropriately

Training is a good way to teach your dog how to behave appropriately

How Do Behavior Professionals Treat These Dogs?

Professionals may vary in how they approach problematic behaviors. Here are just some general guidelines they may use.

Antecedent Control Procedures

Antecedent control procedures aim to prevent the behavior from happening in the first place.

For example, if dogs react by barking at things they see outside of windows, an antecedent control procedure would aim to limit access to windows or apply window film to blur outdoor stimuli.

This can be a permanent solution, or it can be a temporary measure to lower the chances for the problematic behavior to surface at full intensity, giving the opportunity to train an alternate behavior while preventing unnecessary rehearsals of the problematic behavior.

Behavior Replacement

We often tell dogs what not to do, but dogs do much better when we tell them what we would like them to do instead.

For example, with dogs who jump because they are eager to get attention from guests, it can come in handy to train them to sit instead.

Oftentimes, it is best to train a dog to perform the replacement behavior out of the distracting context. In other words, with dogs who jump on guests, these dogs may be too over threshold for being capable to attend to your cues.

It is, therefore, best to train them to sit reliably away from guests, starting in a quiet area of the home, and then gradually practice in the yard, around other family members, on walks, then with friends, before asking them to sit in presence of several guests.

Around guests, it may help to initially do several trials with low-level exposures by using distance, low animosity (no excited talking) so to help keep the dog under threshold.

With lots of practice, it is possible for the antecedent (the guests' arrival) to turn into the cue that tells the dog to sit.

Consequence Changes

This entails changing what the dog gets out of the behavior. By changing the consequence, it is possible to weaken the response towards the antecedent and the behavior that follows.

Not always though the consequence needs to be changed. For instance, in the example above, we saw how dogs who jump can be asked to sit.

In this case, once they learn how to sit reliably in presence of guests, they can then receive the wanted attention this way. In this case, we keep the consequence which maintained the behavior in the first place.

Alternatively, the dog can be trained to sit in presence of guests and then can be rewarded by giving him a bone to chew on a mat. In this case, we change the consequence which maintained the behavior in the first place.

Other Strategies

Several other strategies may be employed to set the dog for success. For instance, it can help to make the problematic behavior difficult to occur, while making the replacement behavior much easier.

For problematic behavior based on fear or defensive aggression, professionals may use several behavior modification techniques based on desensitization and counterconditioning such as Look at That by Leslie McDevitt, Open Bar Closed Bar by Jean Donaldson, and Treat Retreat by Suzanne Clothier.

Often, when working on problematic dog behavior, it's important taking a multi-faceted, holistic approach. For instance, dogs may benefit from increased enrichment (puzzle toys, foraging opportunities, brain games), aerobic exercise, play therapy, relaxing walks, a stress reducing program and training. Dietary changes can help too.

Some dogs who are too fearful, excited or reactive may be way too over threshold, which impairs their ability to cognitively function and learn replacement behaviors.

These dogs may improve with the use of calming aids or medications prescribed by a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.

Often many dog owners are concerned about using prescription meds such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRIs) or Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCA) due to side effects, but they should be reminded that chronic stress and fear can lead to side effects too that may involve the whole body. Not to mention, the impact on their emotional wellbeing.

The Importance of Seeing a Professional

Seeing a professional is your best bet if your dog is misbehaving. A good dog trainer can help teach your dog better impulse control and replacement behaviors. Make sure to find one who uses positive, reward-based methods. Studies have found reward-based methods to be the best dog training method.

For significant behavior problems, you may need the help of a dog behavior specialist. Virtually anybody can call themselves dog behavior experts or even "behaviorists" nowadays.

Your best bet may be to work with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.

References

  • Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior
  • Salman, M. D., Hutchison, J., Ruch-Gallie, R., Kogan, L., New, J. C., Kass, P. H., & Scarlett, J. M. (2000). Behavioral Reasons for Relinquishment of Dogs and Cats to 12 Shelters. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 3(2), 93–106. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327604JAWS0302_2
  • Meghan E. Herron, Frances S. Shofer, Ilana R. Reisner,
    Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors,
    Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 117, Issues 1–2, 2009,
    Pages 47-54, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli

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