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Solving Behavior "Problems" in SDit

Service Dogs in Training are dogs first. Their behavior tends to be more closely scrutinized as they will be working in public where other people will be exposed to and judge the dog's behavior. As a result owner trainers may be worried about behaviors that they consider a problem.

Dogs are complex biological and social beings. Asking the right questions can help you determine what is going on in a specific situation. Here are many things to consider when sleuthing out a behavior you have observed in your dog and you have decided that it's unwanted or even a problem you want to change. 

Questions to Ask
There are several questions that can be asked to help you determine the background of a behavior that you have decided you are not comfortable with. Some of them may not be relevant while some you think aren't relevant may be. It is important to consider all of the questions to give you the most useful information to figure out what is happening for your dog.

These are general questions to get you thinking about the behavior and the context they occur in. They may lead you to ask other questions that will help you understand your dog's situation better and come up with a different more effective solution than you otherwise might. If you are getting professional help, it is helpful to have the answers ready to these questions. They are not arranged in any particular order.

Does the behavior fall in the realm of normal for the species?

Is the behavior new or an established one?

Is it a medical issue or a behavior issue?

Is the behavior dangerous to you, another person or dog? If it is, get help from a professional training coach who uses positive reinforcement right away! Avoid letting the dog practice the behavior in the meantime.

Is it appropriate for the context it is being done in?

What has changed recently in your house or to the dog's daily environment or schedule?

Could the behavior be due to a developmental stage? Adolescence see our 3 blog posts on the topic.

Does the behavior fill a biological/physiological need?

Does the behavior meet a social need?

Is it a behavior that you want to change? If so, why?

Is it a patterned behavior?

Has it been learned from another dog?

Where is it happening? In the house only? In your yard? Everywhere? 

Is this the only place it happens?

Who else is around when it happens? (Other people, dogs etc)

Who else has been around before it happens?

Could the behavior be a sign of stress? (Watch for low level communication from your dog such as lip licking, yawning or looking away before the behavior. This can escalate to a dog that hesitates, slows down, stops or even backs away. The dog may bark at you as well. These all can be signs of stress.)

Could the behavior be a form of communication to you or other dogs? All sorts of subtle and obvious behaviors are a form of communication.

If you had to guess, what emotion is your dog demonstrating in the moment of doing the undesired behavior?
This is an important part of identifying an appropriate course of action for behaviors like barking, low or high arousal, refusal to do behavior etc.

What are the physical and social environment the behavior occurs in? Context can include emotional pressures as well.
Spatial pressure (handler stepping into the dog's personal space) and social pressure (such as handler dropping their tone of voice when giving a cue) are two things most people forget about. They can be important in some space-sensitive breeds such as herding dogs and individuals of other breeds.

What did the dog do before and after the behavior?
We can often predict what a dog is going to do because dogs may naturally do chains of behaviors (like rituals) that can help us predict that the dog is going to do the behavior.

Is there a pattern in when the behavior occurs? 
A pattern is a reliable repeated sample (of behavior in this case). We do that by carefully documenting what we see each time we see it. Then over time we can see how predictable the behavior is occurring and what might be causing or contributing to it. It might take us 3 or 20 repeats to figure out what's going on depending on the behavior, the context and how good we are at observing.

Does the behavior happen with other behaviors or appear to be impulsive.
Patterns might also involve mild to extreme obsessive/compulsive disorders. Does the dog appear to not have control over doing the behavior? This occurs more in some breeds than others. German Shepherd Dogs, Border Collies, Australian Shepherds and other herding breeds can exhibit this.

What do you intuitively think is going on?
Ignore what you have heard trainers on TV say. Go with your gut. You know your dog, the situation he lives in, yourself and the behavior patterns that are normal for your dog. List the top 3 impacts on your dog and why he might be doing the behavior.

Obviously, if the behavior is of concern to the dog or to others (where the dog is showing fear or aggression), we don't want the dog to practice the unwanted behavior, so management to prevent the behavior from occurring is needed until you can get professional help.

Use the questions above to figure out what might be going on for our dog. This will help you and/or your dog professional to determine the best approach to changing the dog's behavior. 

Sample Application
Here is a sample behavior to apply the questions to. I received a brief email that stated the following:

"12 week old, border collie, urinates outside, after finishing walks a few paces & pees (very little) again. Not a UTI, is this a form of mark?”

The information provided is a starting point but let's apply the above questions to help the handler ask some useful questions to figure out what might be going on for their dog.

Does the behavior fall in the realm of normal for the species?
Yes.

Is the behavior new or an established one?
We don't know as the information wasn't provided.

Is it a medical issue or a behavior issue?
The handler appears to have preliminarily ruled out Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). This is a great starting point. Other medical things could still be be happening.

Is the behavior dangerous to you, another person or dog?
No, unless it is a contagious medical isue. 

Is it appropriate for the context it is being done in?
Not normally. This is likely why the handler is worried about it.

What has changed recently in your house or to the dog's daily environment?
Unknown.

Could the behavior be due to a developmental stage?
Possibly. The dog could be in a fear period.

Does the behavior meet a biological/physiological need?
Maybe. Urination is an important behavior for living. Could the dog be emptying her bladder like a male human does? After emptying most of it, she could be trying again to get the last bit out.

Does the behavior meet a social need?
Maybe. Is the second urination an attempt to spread the urine further to leave a message to other dogs? This would be the 'marking' the writer mentions.
Have other dogs marked the spot? The pup might be marking over a spot where another dog peed.

Is it a behavior that you want to change? If so, why?
Unknown. We can speculate here that as a service dog, the dog will be cued to potty and have one chance only to eliminate. Possibly they are concerned the dog is marking and this may be a future predictor of other "problem" behaviors.

Is it a patterned behavior?
Unknown. We may speculate that since the handler has asked the question, it is likely that they have noticed a pattern of this "pee and pee again" behavior whenever she takes the pup out to urinate.

Has it been learned from another dog?
Maybe but we don't know if the pup is around or has been around other dogs. They can learn from a single observation of other dogs.

Where is it happening?
I think we can assume it is outdoors in a potty area.

Is this the only place it happens?
We don't know.

Who else is around when it happens?
We don't know. If there other dogs around when it happens, could it be a response to their behavior?

Who else was around before it happened?
We don't know.

Could the behavior be a sign of stress?
Frequent urination can be a sign of stress. When cortisol levels are higher than normal, the body produces more urine. Does this qualify as frequent urination?

Could the behavior be a form of communication to you or other dogs?
It might be.

If you had to guess, what emotion is your dog demonstrating in the moment of doing the undesired behavior?
The writer didn't speculate.

What is the context (physical and social environment, emotional pressures, etc).
We don't know anything about the context.

What did the dog do before and after the behavior?
We aren't provided with any information.

Is there a pattern in when the behavior occurs?
We don't know if this is a pattern. The way it's written implies that the behavior is, but we do not know.

Does the behavior happen with other behaviors or appear to be impulsive?
We don't know.

What do you intuitively think is going on?
We don't know what the handler thinks, though she does mention marking as a possibility.

This list of questions gives the handler many more insights to her dog's behavior and will help her to figure out what her dog is doing and perhaps why. This is the first step to changing the behavior.