Behavioural problems

Behavioural problems are frequently observed in dogs, some of which can be avoided with the proper socialisation as soon as the puppy arrives in its new home.

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Some phobias, such as noise anxiety and fear of people or motorised traffic, may develop as early as infancy or adolescence. These dogs are not suited to life in built-up areas, as it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to take them out on the street. If they are not properly leashed they may run away and end up the victim of a road accident. Other dogs pull on the leash to return indoors, refuse to budge or move in leaps and bounds. Still others wait until they get home before doing their business, because they need a calm environment they can control. They are often afraid of people and may attack them because of this fear.

Puppies need to be accustomed to various noises and experiences from a very early age

The dog’s brain is not fully developed at birth, continuing to grow for several weeks, so the puppy needs to be raised in a stimulating environment in which it encounters lots of different people and noises. If the puppy is raised in the countryside there may be little in the way of ambient noise or visitors, which will be detrimental to the puppy’s development. Some kennels have endeavoured to mitigate this problem by ensuring their dogs experience lots of different noises and encounter lots of different people, but generally, dogs raised in a non-urban environment will find it hard to function properly in town and cities.

While breeders bear some responsibility, owners can exacerbate any potential problems if they fail to socialise the puppy properly. Puppies need to experience lots of different things from a very early age, including walks in the street, rides in cars, encounters with other animals and people and exposure to plenty of noise sources. Vaccines are available to protect puppies from diseases they are susceptible to and the vet will advise how soon the puppy can be taken out.

Some dogs are simply unmanageable. They are unable to control themselves, jumping, running after anything that moves, including joggers, bikes, birds and leaves, and playing all the time. These tireless animals often end up running amok in the home, chewing enthusiastically, especially if their owners try to rationalise by claiming they are teething. The truth is that these types of dog have been raised by a mother that was too young and not capable of educating them or perhaps part of a large litter that the mother couldn’t cope with. Alternatively they may have been separated from their mother or sold too early (ideally they should remain with her for the first eight weeks) or the mother may have died. These dogs have not learned to control their motor functions or their jaws. They lack any form of self-control.

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is a disorder that veterinarians often have to treat. Dogs are brought to a consultation because they are very destructive, they urinate and defaecate in the home, and they cry, bark or howl constantly when left alone. This type of behaviour is caused by attachment or even hyperattachment to a specific person. Attachment is a learning mechanism in which the puppy identifies with its mother.

It is a vital part of the imprinting process and the proper social, cognitive and motor development of the puppy. During the neonatal period the bitch forms a bond with her puppies and anything that limits contacts between them causes her great distress. During the transition period the puppies in turn form a bond with their mother, who is the only one able to mollify them. The mother becomes their reassuring reference point around which their exploratory behaviour develops. At this point the attachment is mutual and any attempt to come between the two will agitate both parties.

At a certain time, this attachment is broken by the mother. This is an important milestone in the socialisation of the puppies. The first ones to experience this are the males, at about 4-5 months. The mother gradually becomes less and less receptive to their advances and they are forced to sleep elsewhere. The females do not experience this process until their first or second oestrus.

Biting

The most common behavioural problem that veterinarians have to deal with is biting. Like all social mammals, dogs base their life in the pack on a set of hierarchical rules, governing things like access to food, control of territory and control of reproduction. During puberty, dogs endeavour to position themselves in the “human pack”. They will express their dominance and defend their hierarchical privileges, resorting to aggression, confrontation and even urination or defaecation in an effort to reassert them if they are taken away. Dominant dogs have a number of privileges. They eat first, at their leisure, while the rest of the pack looks on.

They control their territory and the movement of members of their pack within it. They often occupy a strategic position (bedroom, landing, hallway), so that they can keep an eye on everything that happens. They control reproduction and manage sexual activity in the pack. Any challenge to the dominant dog’s privileges is likely to be the source of behavioural problems, expressed in aggressive behaviour characterised by the familiar phases of intimidation (growling) and attack (biting), both in the pack and in the family.

Behavioural problems can be fairly easily avoided. One simple precaution is selecting the right breeding establishment. Potential owners should pay an advance visit and ask to see the mother and her litter so that they can get an idea of the conditions in which they are being raised and fed. Puppies should not be bought until they are eight - ten weeks old and enquiries should be made to make sure the puppy was not separated from its mother before it was two months old. And when the puppy does arrive in its new home there are a number of rules that need to be followed to ensure that everything goes smoothly.

In the event of a behavioural problem, in a puppy or an adult dog, the appropriate remedy will often be found by consulting a veterinary behaviourist. The list of behavioural pathologies is too long to be included here.

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Depression in dogs

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Some behavioural problems could be described as depression, which is defined as a mental disturbance characterised by sleeping problems, psychomotor inhibition and withdrawal. The animal loses its ability to adapt to variations in its environment. The depressive state can be acute or chronic. Acute depression is characterised by a lack of interest and enthusiasm, a state of apathy (an unwillingness to explore). The dog is indifferent to its environment and uninterested in regular activities. It eats less, sometimes not at all (anorexia) and sleeps a lot (hypersomnia).

There are many different causes, including violent aggression (traffic accident), sudden loss of the socio-emotional framework (abandonment or death of an owner or even another animal to whom it was attached). Sometimes it can affect puppies that are rejected by their mother and unable to form an attachment to a person or another animal.

In the case of chronic depression, the dog exhibits sudden emotional responses to highly intensive stimuli. Its behavioural functions are altered. It loses interest in all regular activities, like playing or social relationships. Sleeping problems have been observed, as have cleanliness issues. Chronic depression may develop from untreated acute depression or from endogenous problems such as endocrine disorders (thyroid or adrenal gland dysfunction) or brain tumours.

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