Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Basic Training May Alleviate Pet Behavior Problems

Pet Column for the week of November 7, 2005

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Office of Public Engagement

Do you know the biggest reason for pet euthanasia in this country? Is it incurable disease? Injury? The truth is that more companion animals are euthanized for behavior problems than for any other reason. Some animals are euthanized because they are aggressive and dangerous, but many are euthanized for behavior problems that could have been avoided.

Linda Case, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, owns and operates Autumn Gold Dog Training Center in Mahomet, Ill. One of her goals is to raise awareness among dog owners in order to prevent behavior problems.

"One of the biggest problems we see is that people underestimate how much time caring for a dog requires. Many dogs do not have all of their needs met, and many are horribly under-exercised," says Case. "Unfortunately, since crate training became popular, the crate has sometimes been used as a place to stow the dog rather than being used as the housebreaking tool as it was meant to be. Many dogs spend far too much time in their crates."

Dr. Christine Merle, a veterinarian formerly at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, agrees. "Another problem people have with dogs is a basic lack of manners. Because they have not been taught manners, many dogs engage in undesirable activities, such as jumping up on people and not coming when called. When people take the time to educate themselves about the needs of their pet, behavior issues such as these can be prevented. Unfortunately, owners often assume that the dog should somehow be aware of basic rules of behavior without ever having been taught."

If bad behavior continues for an extended period of time, pet owners sometimes attribute very human characteristics to the dog, as if the pet is engaging in the unwanted activity on purpose. Despite what some owners think, their pet is not defecating in the house or digging up the garden in order to exact some sort of retribution.

Most likely, undesirable behaviors that occur within a home are due to some need that is not being met by the owner. "Unruly behaviors such as digging and barking excessively are called attention seeking behaviors," says Case. "The challenge of dog training is often to discover why the dog is engaging in those behaviors. Instead of looking at training as something that is done to the dog, the best way to solve these problems is to approach dog training from a human-animal bond standpoint, which involves looking at how the owner lives with the dog and how that lifestyle is affecting the dog's behavior."

One of the best ways to avoid behavior problems before they start is to enroll in a dog training class early, ideally when the dog is young. These classes not only teach good manners, but can help the dog become more comfortable around other dogs and people. For dogs with a problem with aggression, there are private trainers who can help owners and pets on an individual basis. Certified veterinary behaviorists can help with problems that are insurmountable through regular training.

Matching the animal to the owner's lifestyle is very important, and many behavior problems can be avoided by choosing a pet carefully. Before you decide to get a pet, research the needs of that animal and find out about breed-specific characteristics that need to be taken into consideration. Remember that most of the time, getting a pet on a whim is a very bad idea.

If you have a dog that has a behavior problem or you would like to enroll your pet in a training class, contact your local veterinarian and ask for a list of dog training clubs in your area.