- People often blame owners for their pets' problem behaviors. Understanding the real reasons behind the behaviors allows for finding solutions.
- Pets' behavior problems have their origins in many factors, including early adversity, behavioral genetics, and prior experience.
- Nature and nurture matter when it comes to pets' behavior. The interplay can either cultivate traits or leave them dormant.
Written by Margaret M. Duxbury DVM, DACVB
I used to be ashamed of my dog. If Tug saw another dog, he’d leap in the air. Wild-eyed, he’d lunge at the end of the leash and let loose a stream of ear-splitting doggie expletives that needed no translation.
That was embarrassing enough. But worse were the looks from my neighbors. The eye-roll shared with a walking mate. A sigh so big you could see shoulders rise and fall from 40 feet away. Those who refused to acknowledge us at all, instead walking past with face set firmly neutral, opinions transparent in a jut of the jaw and a gaze straight ahead. People can make us feel bad.
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Each year, hundreds of pet owners coming to our behavior specialty practice answer “Yes” to the question, “Do you feel guilty about your pet’s behavior?”
Fundamental Attribution Bias
Why do people often assume the worst about others instead of being sympathetic? The answer may be due to fundamental attribution bias, the natural tendency to assume that our success or failure is due to personal attributes such as temperament, IQ, or personality rather than the individual circumstance we are in. Since these attributes contribute to our feeling of self-worth, this bias is ego-building if we are enjoying success but humiliating if we are failing.
I knew that Tug had struggled around other dogs since he was tiny and that this was a bad moment in what had been several weeks of progress. But my neighbors only saw him as a bad dog and me as incapable. It was hard for that not to matter.
Why Do Behavior Problems Develop?
Dogs develop behavior problems for many reasons. Humans love dogs, but none of us arrive in the world fluent in their non-verbal language. It’s not our fault, but it is an opportunity. Learning to understand what dogs think through their body language can resolve a host of issues. When we communicate using the things that matter to them as canines and as individuals, we build cooperation and trust to help them navigate the difficult parts of life.
Many of our dogs had a rough start in life. Early adversity, such as malnutrition, neglect, housing stress, or an impoverished social environment can undermine a dog’s ability to cope with stress throughout their lives. These dogs see the world through a harsher lens than those who come from generations of well-cared-for ancestors. Their stress response will be bigger. It will take less to set it in motion. Recovery will be slower. All of this makes them harder to manage and without medical treatment reduces their quality of life.
Even puppies picked after careful planning can arrive with their own set of baggage. Behavioral genetics is far more complicated than those for physical traits such as coat or eye color. But genes do contribute importantly to many behavioral traits. From the instinctive "go around, lie down" of a Border Collie near sheep, to a setter on point in a grouse woods or a Labrador’s insatiable retrieve, genes matter. Genes also contribute to behavior problems such as noise sensitivities, compulsive behaviors, shyness, fearfulness, and certain types of aggression.
Experience drives behaviors. Our pets’ futures are written by their pasts and what happens to them today. Pets with serious behavior problems need protection from the situations that unleash their demons. How we manage our dogs, how we communicate, what they learn, what they learn to love; these things matter and bring about change we can take credit for.
Nature and Nurture
Nature and nurture both matter. A genetically fearful puppy will have more trouble raised in isolation than one who can engage in the world by choice, and when ready explore and create important social bonds. Well-intentioned play with a laser pointer may unlock a hidden genetic code to chase lights and shadows that takes on a life of its own.
Tug was a confident, happy-go-lucky puppy from a caring breeder who’d done everything right. At 8 weeks old, he was excited to go to puppy class, confident in the environment, and loved up the instructors. It was a bitter surprise when the first puppy arrived; he darted beneath a chair to hide. His kneejerk fear persisted even as he improved in smaller, quieter remedial groups, gained confidence as a pesky "younger brother" to our patient adult Labrador and was never forced to approach or be approached by another dog. He had no experiential reason to be afraid of other dogs. He just was—and is to this day. After years of hard work, he is no longer a "freak on a leash" but he still wants nothing to do with other dogs. It is written in his DNA.
When we encounter others having trouble, let’s use our minds and hearts to see past our own attribution bias. We may have "walked a walk," but we have not walked their walk. How could we know that the woman dragged down the street by an unruly beagle never intended to get a dog, but clings to this one, the beloved sidekick and the last living connection to the son who died unexpectedly? Or that the man caring for a dog that is becoming dangerous is also caring for his wife, whose dementia leads her to open the very doors he closes for safety? People need support. We may not see their struggles, but we are better off if we assume they are there.
When trying to manage a pet with problem behavior, it is important to find support from those who understand. And also, to turn our attention inward. Let's celebrate our own courage as we put aside the dream dog we imagined and love the unique dog in front of us.
Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. Philo.