Diagnosing Behavior Problems in Dogs

ByGary M. Landsberg, BSc, DVM, MRCVS, DACVB, DECAWBM
Reviewed/Revised Feb 2018 | Modified Mar 2018

Many “health” problems faced by pet dogs are associated with behavior problems or unmet expectations about the pet’s behavior. Your veterinarian will first need to rule out any possible health problems that could be causing your pet's behavior to change. For example, a medical condition could be causing your pet to urinate in the house. Your veterinarian will take a behavioral history before making any diagnosis. A behavioral history generally includes the following: 1) the sex, breed, and age of the dog; 2) the age at onset of the condition; 3) the duration of the condition; 4) a description of the actual behavior; 5) the frequency of the problem behavior (hourly, daily, weekly, monthly); 6) the duration of a typical episode (seconds, minutes, hours); 7) any change in pattern, frequency, intensity, and duration of episodes; 8) any corrective measures tried and the response; 9) any activities that stopped the behavior (for example, the dog falls asleep); 10) the 24-hour schedule of the dog and owner, as well as any day-to-day changes; 11) the dog’s family history (in other words, are there signs of similar problems in the dog’s parents or littermates?); 12) the dog's environment and housing; and 13) anything else the owner thinks is relevant.

You and your veterinarian should consider the "ABCs" of the behavior problem. What happens prior to the behavior (the Antecedent)? What is the Behavior? What happens immediately afterward (the Consequences)? Because behaviors can change as dogs learn and mature, your veterinarian will also consider how the problem initially started.

Modern veterinary care includes routine screening questions about specific behavior complaints—such as inappropriate or undesirable chewing, growling, or odd behavior—in addition to routine questions that alert your veterinarian to potential medical problems. This routine screening helps establish what is normal for your dog. If your veterinarian does not ask about behavior problems, be sure to mention them yourself. Unfortunately, many owners do not report behavior problems to their veterinarians, and these problems are a major reason pets are given away or put to sleep.

Because behavioral diagnoses cannot be made on the basis of a one-time event, pet owners can complete a questionnaire at each visit to mark the patterns of the dog’s behavior. Your veterinarian can then identify whether the signs (barking, growling, lunging) create a pattern that meets specific diagnostic criteria such as fear aggression or protective aggression ( see Behavior Problems Associated with Aggression in Dogs). Both you and your veterinarian must use the same definitions for the same nonspecific signs. You both must also accurately recognize and describe behaviors that are of concern.

Video of your dog’s behavior can help ensure that your veterinarian makes an accurate diagnosis. The questionnaire relies on your description and, because of this, is more subjective. However, when combined with video, your veterinarian can use questionnaires to diagnose behavior problems. When you recognize the behaviors leading to or associated with the problematic ones, you can avoid or prevent the situation that leads up to the problem. By viewing the problematic behavior on video, your veterinarian can work with you to help treat the condition.

Where to Get Help

Owners seeking help for a behavior problem with their pet can turn to several sources. The American Veterinary Medical Association recognizes a variety of specialties within veterinary medicine. Similar to specialties in human medicine, these include veterinarians who are board-certified in surgery, internal medicine, ophthalmology (eye care), dentistry, behavior, and many other areas of expertise. Most board-certified veterinary behaviorists work in veterinary colleges or private referral practices.

Other resources include: the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's Find a Consultant tool; the Pet Professional Guild for information on force-free dog training; and the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists,

There are also veterinarians who are not board-certified, but who have a special interest in behavior. These veterinarians have a range of experience and expertise in the field, and many offer consultations as a part of their regular veterinary practice.

In addition, nonveterinarians sometimes call themselves behaviorists and offer counseling on behavior problems of pets. Some have a doctoral or master’s degree in psychology or a related field, and some have earned a certification. Others, primarily dog trainers, have no formal education in behavior but offer advice on solving behavior problems. Owners who need help for their pet should ask about the background and training of the person offering the behavior consultation before setting up an appointment. Because many behavior problems in pets can be influenced by medical conditions, veterinarians are the professionals who can offer the most comprehensive care.

Defining the Problem

The following is a brief glossary of terms commonly used when discussing behavior.

An abnormal behavior is one that is dysfunctional and unusual. This is different from a behavioral complaint, which can be a normal but undesirable action (such as jumping up, getting into the garbage, or herding).

Abnormal repetitive behaviors occur when dogs do not adjust to a situation in an appropriate way, often responding with repetitive or fixed movements or actions. Abnormal repetitive behaviors include both compulsive/impulsive and stereotypic behaviors (see below). Examples include signs pertaining to the mouth (eating non-food objects, licking, gulping, and excessive eating), brain (repeated jaw snapping, light chasing), movement (spinning, pouncing), or self-directed injuries (hair plucking, excessive skin licking).

Aggression in animals is everything related to a threat or attack. There are various kinds of aggressive behavior in animals, such as territorial defense, predatory aggression, and inter-male aggression ( see Behavior Problems Associated with Aggression in Dogs). Examples of aggressive acts include biting, growling, and scratching.

Anxiety is the anticipation of danger accompanied by signs of tension (vigilance, increased movement, and tense muscles). The focus of anxiety can be internal or external.

Compulsive or obsessive-compulsive disorders are abnormal and repetitive behaviors typically done in an attempt to achieve a goal. These intense behaviors may be difficult to interrupt or be uncontrollable. They can start from normal behaviors (such as grooming or eating) and normal situations (frustration or conflict) but then progress to inappropriate situations and intensities. Some compulsive behaviors appear to be genetic, such as tail chasing in German Shepherds or flank skin sucking in Doberman Pinschers.

A dog in conflict has tendencies to perform more than one type of activity at once. For example, a dog may want to approach a person to get a treat, but may also be afraid of the person and unwilling to come too close. The motivation for the conflict, except for extreme instances associated with survival functions (for example, eating), is very hard to identify in animals. Conflict might result in aggression or displacement behaviors (see below).

Displacement activity is the resolution of a conflict by performing a seemingly unrelated activity. Because the animal is physically or behaviorally unable to act appropriately, it will often perform an apparently irrelevant activity. Examples of these irrelevant activities are grooming, feeding, scratching, and sleeping. It is less specific than redirected behavior, which is directed toward another target.

Dominance refers to competition over a limited resource (for example, a treat, a favorite toy, or a comfortable resting place). A higher-ranking animal can displace a lower-ranking one from the resource. Rank or hierarchy is usually defined by an ability to control the resource. A dominant animal is not the one engaged in the most fighting. Most high-ranking animals can be identified by the submissive behavior exhibited toward them by others in their group. Dominance terminology applies to communication between members of a single species (dog-to-dog) but does not apply to communication between species (human-to-dog).

Fear is a feeling of apprehension associated with the presence of an object, individual, or social situation and is part of normal behavior. Deciding whether a fear is abnormal depends on the context. For example, fire is a useful tool, and fear of being burned by it is normal. However, if the house were not on fire, such a fear would be irrational. If this fear was constant or recurrent, it would probably be considered an abnormal behavior. Normal and abnormal fears usually vary in intensity. The intensity increases as the real or imagined nearness of the object that causes the fear increases.

Frustration arises when a dog is unable to complete a behavior due to physical or psychological obstacles. When pets are frustrated, they can respond with redirected behavior, a displacement activity, or anxiety. For example, a dog that is frustrated by being unable to get to a cat on the other side of a fence can respond by attacking another household pet. This term, like dominance, is overused and usually undefined, which means it often is not very helpful when diagnosing a behavior problem.

Most fearful reactions are learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure. Phobias, though, are profound, fearful reactions that do not diminish either with gradual exposure to the object or without exposure over time. A phobia involves sudden, all-or-nothing, profound, abnormal reactions resulting in panic. Phobias may develop quickly or over time, but once established they are characterized by immediate and intense anxiety. Fear may develop more gradually and, within an episode of fearful behavior, there may be more variation in intensity than would be seen in a phobic reaction. Once a phobic event has been experienced, any event associated with it or the memory of it is enough to generate the reaction. Even without re-exposure, such as the use of a shock collar on a dog, phobias can remain at or exceed their former high level for years. Phobic situations are either avoided at all costs or, if unavoidable, are endured with intense anxiety or distress. There also appears to be a genetic or hereditary basis for these responses in some canine breeds.

Redirected behavior is directed away from the inciting target and toward another, less appropriate target.

Stereotypic behaviors are repetitious, relatively unvaried actions that have no obvious purpose or function. They are usually derived from normal behavior, such as grooming, eating, or walking. These behaviors are abnormal because they interfere with the normal functioning of the animal.

Vacuum activity can occur when an animal cannot perform a highly desired instinctive behavior. Examples include flank sucking and excessive licking. Vacuum activities have no useful purpose.

Treatment of Behavior Problems in Dogs

The diagnosis, treatment, and expected outcome of a behavior problem vary depending on the underlying issue. Early on, owners will usually need to avoid situations that trigger the abnormal behavior. After implementing treatment techniques, the problematic situations might be slowly reintroduced under the recommendations of the overseeing veterinarian. Treatment for abnormal behaviors takes time and commitment from pet owners. Quick fixes or "magic pills" do not exist for behavior problems. In addition, the safety of household members, other pets, and the pet itself must be considered, especially in the cases of aggression. Modifying a pet's behavior involves behavior modification techniques to promote and reward desirable behaviors; the use of products that improve safety, reduce anxiety, or quicken improvements (for example, muzzles or no-pull head halters); and, possibly, drugs and supplements.

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