Most ‘behavioural problems’ are the result of a mismatch between what dogs want to do, and what humans want them to do. We try to bring up dogs so that they understand and abide by human rules, but it’s not always easy. We may expect too much of a dog, or not understand what they’re trying to tell us, or how much of what we tell them they can understand. We and our dogs can both be a bit impulsive and make mistakes, especially when we’re stressed out. That's normal, and can happen to the best of us. The key to improving behaviour is to teach a dog how to behave, to set the dog up for success.

A lot of problems can be prevented and tackled through training, in the broad sense of teaching dogs rules and skills to help them cope with the human world, as well as teaching dogs skills so we can share enjoyable activities together. Some training games are useful for teaching a number of different skills. The ‘paper plate recall’, for example, helps to teach self control, accepting restraint, and sending a dog to a target, as well as strengthening recall. It’s described in ‘Recall’, but is also a useful start if you want to teach a dog to go to a mat and ‘settle’, which is handy to tackle ‘Attention Seeking’ when you’re busy and don’t need canine help. Settling a dog is also a good idea when you have visitors and want your dog to lie quietly in a basket rather than jumping on them, so helps tackle the problem of ‘Jumping up’.  Retrieve and tug games can be great fun for you and your dog, as well as teaching a ‘drop’ or ‘give’, which help to counter ‘Resource guarding’.

It makes sense to work with a professional trainer, or someone especially dog-savvy, who can give you ideas for training games tailored to your dog, and help you to structure a training programme. This is especially true for people with dogs from working lines which have been bred for particular behaviours that are an asset if the dog is trained to use its talents, and a problem if the dog is left to work out how to use them. Gundogs, for example, may like to carry objects around, great if you’re retrieving, not so great if your dog is playing ‘chase me if you want your sock back’.

Food rewards are used a lot in training, but they may seem boring to a dog who really wants to retrieve or tug. Even so it’s sometimes a good idea to bring out a stinky treat, to direct a dog’s attention away from a wildly exciting game, because dogs can get overexcited and bitey when they’re happy, and need to calm down. As explained in ‘Biting’ not all bite injuries are caused by ‘bad stress’.

Sometimes we’re not sure why a dog is behaving a certain way, and trainers can help us to interpret our dogs, and send them clearer messages. This is especially true for ‘Aggressive Threats’ (growling or snarling) which are a worry for many owners. 'Aggression' is a ‘catch all’ term for most people, and is often used to mean 'intending harm, or inflicting harm', including chasing cats or sheep. Chasing is technically predatory behaviour, or play rather than aggression, and can have more serious consequences than what is technically known as 'aggression'. Chasing can involve a dog trying to get close to a small animal, or worse, a child, with intent to harm, whereas growling is used to create distance between a dog and a potential threat. Chase games can begin as play for a dog, then change to become serious predation, if a dog gets carried away. Teasing out why dogs might endanger humans and other animals helps to prevent problems. Dogs can also be labelled 'aggressive' if they scare strangers with alarm barks, or by jumping up on them, without doing or intending to do any harm. It's reasonable for people to expect dog owners to control their pets so they don’t harm or scare other people, or other animals, so these issues need to be tackled, even if we know the dog means no harm.

In general, we can do a lot to ensure that our dogs behave well in public, like teaching them to sit nicely when we talk to strangers, and teaching a sit at a distance, and a solid recall, so they don’t rush headlong into trouble. We have to know our dog’s limits, leashing or confining them if we can’t trust them to behave well, and trying not to expose them to situations they can’t cope with. ‘Resource guarding’, ‘Touching, Handling and Vet Phobias’  ‘Barking’, ‘Jumping up’ and ‘Chasing’ are common problems where dogs can behave in ways that people see as ‘aggressive’.  However, if you’re worried about your dog’s aggressive behaviour, do find an experienced professional who can help. The earlier you can do this, the more chance you have of a happy outcome.

Separation Anxiety’ is often coupled with ‘Destructiveness’, but some dogs simply like chewing and ripping items to shreds – Labradors are notorious for this! It can help with both problems to structure the day and develop routines, so the dog knows what’s happening. Uncertainty can add to the stress of having one’s human go away for long periods, whereas a regular walk before the human leaves, coupled with a chew toy or kong, can help to settle a dog.  A trainer can help with developing daily structures and routines suited to you and your dog.

Walking dogs in the UK isn’t always easy, especially in built-up areas, because you meet a lot of other humans and their dogs. There are some tips in ‘Walking Together’, but again, training classes can help you to set up controlled situations, to teach your dog how to cope with the world out of doors.  Owners today face more challenges than in the days when dogs could walk the streets unattended, but we do have the benefit of better help with teaching our dogs how to cope with the world. 

Appetite Loss

Do check with your vet in case this is due to illness. It's very common, however, for healthy young dogs to go through phases when they don't eat well, especially adolescent dogs, and all dogs when it's very hot. Entire lovesick males often go off their food. It usually does the dog no harm to miss a meal now and then. Obesity is a greater health risk than a dog being a bit underweight. Dogs also vary in terms of how much food they need, and yours may not conform to the advice printed on packs about how much a dog of his weight should eat. Go by your dog's condition and appearance, is he tired? Does he appear thin? Ask a vet if you aren't sure.

Aggressive Threats (Growling and snarling)

Owners of dogs that growl and snarl are often worried about having an aggressive dog. Growling isn't always serious. Dogs sometimes growl in play with each other, and may growl in play with humans. There are also conversational growls, like grumbling comments, such as 'do you really have to groom me?' which don't lead to anything. The dog isn't really spooked or angry, just grumbling. It's when dogs are spooked, very aroused, that growling tells you that there's a problem.

Attention Seeking

(See also Destructiveness and Stealing)

Often dogs have a 'valid reason' for seeking our attention at inconvenient times, like an upset tummy, which means they need to go outside urgently, even if it's 3am. First thing in the morning, you want a pee, and so does your dog. There's no need to get properly dressed for a five minute 'comfort' walk, you can fling on whatever clothes are to hand. If you let him out, or walk him round the block first thing it means you can have a coffee in peace with a good conscience. Dogs may also have 'cabin fever' especially if they have been good and quiet for several hours while you have been ignoring them, or shut in while you were at work. Too much attention can make dogs pushy, but they do need their basic needs met.


Some breeds hardly ever bark, while others bark a lot. Barking is a way for dogs to communicate with humans, and sometimes with other dogs. Wolves don't bark, and nor do strays, there's no-one to talk to. Barking is a common alarm call and a warning to intruders, but dogs also bark because they are happy to see you, want to go out, want attention, can see a friend across the street, or just 'because'. Barking at strangers isn't always a sign of aggression. Dogs may excitedly bark at visitors in the hope that something nice will happen. If your dog barks a lot, you will know that there are differences between the kinds of bark he makes, with the alarm barking deeper and more urgent.

Bitches In Season and 'Lovesick' Dogs

Bitches in season go through mood changes, and may be grumpy with other dogs for part of their season. They'll often try to escape to find a mate when they're at their most fertile. This is not disobedience, or a behavioural problem, it's what they¡re programmed to do! They also need to wee more, and may dribble and mark, as well as bleed during part of their season. Never let a bitch in season off the leash in a public area (some people do). It's kinder to the local entire males to take bitches in season for walks to places where there aren't many dogs. It's safer to spay a bitch if you aren't sure you can prevent her from having unwanted pregnancies. There are also health benefits to spaying, such as less vulnerability to pyometra, which usually outweigh the disadvantages, such as the risks from the operation itself, and vulnerability to incontinence. Check with your vet on the pros and cons, which can vary according to breed.

Male dogs can become 'lovesick' when they catch a whiff of a bitch in season. The dog is off his food, whines constantly, and wants to go out. Not all dogs are affected, some entire males never become lovesick. Dogs may also be unaffected by some bitches, and besotted by others. Lovesick dogs tend to be untrustworthy off-leash. Short walks can sometimes 'reset' their brains, if their lady-love has not recently passed by. 

Biting (including nipping and playbiting)


Puppies should always be taught bite inhibition from their first interaction with you, it's so important for their future. Some people play games with their dogs which involve letting their dogs bite them, though not hard, but there are good reasons for discouraging dogs from using their teeth on humans in any way, including mouthing and nipping. A dog that bites strangers may have to be put down, and dogs can and do hurt people by biting them. This is especially true for children, who can be hurt by a bite that an adult might hardly feel.Pups do need to learn not to bite hard, and to do this they need to be allowed to bite, but they can do this with other dogs, rather than with people. It makes sense not to allow any playbiting, mouthing, nipping or snapping, and never, ever, let anyone roughhouse your pup and encourage him to playbite. It's easier to prevent playbiting than to cure it once it has become a habit.

Chasing Children, Cars, Bikes, Joggers, Cats, Sheep etc.

Most dogs love to chase anything that moves, whether it's a ball or a rabbit. This is useful when you're teaching a dog to retrieve, but the desire to chase can get out of hand if a dog develops bad habits, like chasing cars. Dogs may also start chasing children, sheep, or cats as play, and this can have serious consequences, because chasing is part of dogs' predatory behaviour. Problem chasing is common among young dogs, and may be difficult to extinguish, because it makes the dog feel good. Prevention is better than cure - ensuring that youngsters don't have a chance to chase anything they shouldn't, while working on recall, stop at a distance, and channeling the desire to chase into retrieving. Whistle recalls tend to work better than shouting if your dog does start to chase something he shouldn't. A whistle is more likely to get through to a dog which has gone partly deaf with the thrill of the chase. 



(See also Separation Anxiety.)

Pups need to chew, and will chew whatever they find if they aren't supplies with permissible chew objects. Pups and young dogs tend to be quite destructive, while they are at the chewing stage, and until they learn what they can and can't chew. This also applies to adult dogs which have never lived in a house. Try to make sure your dog doesn't have access to forbidden objects. Bitter apple, tabasco and other preparations are used by some owners to protect furniture. They sometimes work, but not always. It's more helpful to provide safe and attractive chew objects.

Fighting between dogs living together

Fighting between dogs in our homes can be a big worry, and some people are concerned about playfights and older dogs disciplining pups, in case it escalate into serious fights which can result in injury. It's not always easy to interpret what's happening between dogs, so it helps to call in an experienced professional if you re unsure.


Playfighting involves tussles, chases and playbows, and is a game, involving give and take. Some people argue that playfights between pups shouldn't be allowed, since it's a way that dogs learn to fight. However, they're learning far more than this. Playfights can be a useful way for pups to learn how to bite gently and not hurt each other. Pups can develop useful social skills through playfights, both learning to control their aggression and learning when and how to submit. Playfights mixed with chases are also a good way for pups and young dogs to run off steam. Social animals that are deprived of play when they're young don't learn necessary social skills.


Dogs often appear possessive of their owners. They may latch onto one person in a household, growling at the other humans. It's quite common for small, fluffy dogs, like Pomeranians, to decide they belong to the woman of the household, and growl at her partner. One way to tackle this is for all rewards to come from the partner - including walks, as well as meals and titbits. The woman can leash the dog, and then pass the leash on. This can work fast, because the only way the dog gets what he wants is by being nice to the partner. Not all men want to be seen out with small, fluffy dogs, but walking with the man of the house can make a big difference in bonding. The man not only becomes a source of pleasure, he also becomes the person who protects the dog in the big wide world outside.

Jumping up

Large dogs can bowl people over by jumping up on them as a greeting, and even small dogs can scare children if they jump up, so it's worth teaching all dogs how to greet people politely. Training dogs to greet without jumping up can begin in puppyhood, by teaching 'off', once the pup has jumped, 'sit' if the dog looks about to jump, and only rewarding with cuddles or whatever when the pup has all four paws on the ground. You can also squat to greet the pup, making it easier to greet you from a sit or a stand. It's especially useful for pups to learn polite greetings, since manners learnt by pups tend to stay with them as adults. People often cuddle pups whatever they do, because they are unbearably cute, but meanwhile the pup could be learning lots of bad habits. The person the dog is greeting can take a step back from the dog, and greet immediately the dog has all four paws on the ground. Repeat if the dog jumps up again. 'Off' is easy to teach with a treat thrown on the ground. You say 'off' as the dog gets down to get the treat. This can be reinforced by stepping on a lead, so an attempt to jump up cannot succeed.


Dogs mount for a number of reasons, not just because they want to mate. It is most common in entire males between one and two-years-old, but neutered males and bitches also mount. It may be a sign of wanting to dominate another dog, but not always, and may just be overexcitement, often coupled with being socially inept.


(See also Vet Phobias)

Dogs can develop phobias, or exaggerated fears, about all kinds of events, people, other animals, objects and sounds. This tendency is often an inherited trait, though dogs may also have a tendency to anxiety if they have suffered unpleasant experiences just after birth, or been separated from their mothers too young. Though many authors see six to eight weeks as a suitable age to take a pup home, it's usually safer to wait until eight weeks, because the extra two weeks spent with mum and littermates can give the pup more confidence in coping with life, as well as giving the pup time to learn more social skills.

Poo Eating (Coprophagia)

It's not always understood why some dogs eat their own poo, and the reasons will vary. Some dogs, especially those confined in kennels where poo is often available, may pick up the habit out of boredom. There may also be a vitamin deficiency - vitamin B has been suggested. Get a vet check just in case there is a clear medical cause. It's worth asking about the correct dosage for your dog of yeast tablets and fish oil supplements, which some owners have found can help. Owners have also sucessfully reduced the attractiveness of poo by adding liver, carrots and green beans to the dog's diet; they seem to make the poo less attractive. There is no guarantee that supplements and diet changes will work, but they may work, and are unlikely to harm your dog, so long as you check with your vet on the correct dosage of supplements.

Possessiveness (Resource guarding)

Guarding food or objects from humans by growling and snapping is very common in dogs, so common that you could call it 'normal' in dogs that haven't been taught to be relaxed about resources, and to give them up when asked. Some dogs never do this, but most dogs benefit from training, prefereably from puppyhood.  Ideally, you should be able to take anything away from a dog without him objecting. Pups can learn that people going near their bowls is as a good thing, if you add tasty titbits to their meals while they're eating. Getting cross with a dog for growling to retain an object may make things worse, by confirming his view that you're a threat. Instead, help your dog to feel safe about essentials, like meals, and teach him how to give up or leave objects. Children are at risk if they try to take away food or something else a dog is guarding, so it's important to supervise small children and dogs, to teach children to leave dogs in peace when they're eating, or gnawing a bone, and to teach them to say 'off' to dogs lying on a sofa, rather than try to pull or push them off..

Recall (Coming back when called)

Scenthounds, ex-racing greyhounds, lovesick dogs, young dogs and ex-strays may not be keen on coming back when called . Some dogs will never be trustworthy, but most dogs respond well to training, after which they can be trusted most of the time.

Separation Anxiety

(See also Barking, Destructiveness and Toilet Training)

Dogs vary in terms of how happy they are to be away from their owners. Some may be perfectly content, so long as they aren't left for too long, while others show distress, often called 'separation anxiety'. Separation anxiety is more common among dogs in kennels, ex-shelter dogs, and in certain breeds, especially those designed to work closely with their owners, such as border collies and German shepherds. The dog howls or panics at being away from a particular human or humans, and can even jump out of high windows when they see the owner leave, fearing abandonment. Sometimes dogs try to dig their way out of the house, to be reunited with their owners. This is different from trashing the house out of boredom.


Dogs soon learn what they are allowed to take, and what is forbidden, but they may 'steal' forbidden objects like food on kitchen work surfaces, or when they want your attention, or when they're just bored. Try to keep all tempting forbidden objects out of reach or locked away. Teach 'leave' and call him to you if he looks like he is about to steal something. If saying 'leave' doesn't work alone, try a whistle recall. 

Toilet Training (peeing, pooing, or marking indoors)

Bladder control isn't fully developed until a dog is around eight-months-old, and smaller dogs have less control than larger dogs, so make sure your dog is going out often enough for comfort. Never leave a pup for long in a crate, since he will end up having to wee in his den. Always leave the door open and fence off a safe area with a toilet for him, if you have to leave him for any length of time. Little pups need to go out when they wake, when they have eaten, after playing, and when they've sniffed the ground. Try gently carrying them out before they wake up, so they don't have a chance to wee on the way out.

Touching, Handling, and 'Vet Phobias'

Some dogs need a lot of work to get them to feel comfortable about being touched, handled or restrained. This applies especially to some breeds, and to dogs taken on as adults which have had little experience of being handled. Dogs can also become anxious about being handled if they've had some rough handling, which includes surprising them by picking by suddenly them up and cuddling them. Small dogs may send messages of 'cuteness overload', but need respect and self-control from their owners! The best time to get dogs used to having their paws, ears and other sensitive parts examined is when they are puppies. Pups like contact with humans, so it's easy to have a quick pretend vet exam while the pup is relaxed, looking at ears, eyes, teeth, paws (including nails) and other sensitive areas. You can play 'trust games', which include very short periods of restraint, while pups are in a playful mood and showing 'happy' body language. Professional help can be especially useful if you're unsure of the messages your pup is sending you. or the effect of your body language on a pup. If your pup starts to get anxious about handling, it is time to see an experienced professional. 

It takes longer to accustom an adult dog to being handled. If you take on a dog that's wary of being touched due to lack of close human contact, it's worth working with a professional, and developing a plan to relax the dog. A fearful dog may see  an approaching hand as a threat if it comes out of the blue, yet ask to be petted at other times. Generally, dogs like being scratched behind the ears, and long, slow strokes from the neck down the back. They tend not to like unpredictability, especially if woken from sleep by being petted. You can get dogs used to being kissed or patted on the head, restraining bear hugs, being petted by someone towering over them, and being grabbed by the collar, but many dogs find this unnerving. If they're spooked enough, they may snap defensively. Children do need to be supervised with dogs, and small children are not a good mix with dogs that are edgy about being touched. 


Walking Together

Walks with dogs can bring temptations and challenges, especially in parts of the UK that are built up, with a lot of traffic, people, and other dogs. In rural areas, there’s the temptation of sheep and other livestock, as well as wildlife, that offers an exciting chase. It’s normal for dogs to want to pull to make you go faster, especially if you use a flexilead, which rewards them for pulling. Dogs can feel overwhelmed by loud traffic, or being crowded by strangers, human and canine.  It’s also normal for youngsters to have bad manners when they meet other dogs and people. Someone has to teach them. The goal is for walking together to be a safe and enjoyable experience for both people and dogs. That takes some planning and thought on the part of humans, and trainers can help enormously with developing a structured programme.



Thank you to Berit Aherne, Janet Boss, Amy Dahl, Wendy Hanson, Helle Haugenes, Sally Hennessey, Nancy Holmes, Heather Houlahan, Lynn Kosmakos and Sarah Whitehead, for informative discussions on dog training and behaviour. The views and solutions set out here do not necessarily reflect their views, but their insights have been valuable.

Further Reading

Reisner I.R., Shofer F.S. Behavioral assessment of child-directed canine aggression. Inj Prev. 2007 Oct;13(5):348-51.

Rezac, P.,Rezac, K., Slama,P. Human behavior preceding dog bites to the face The Veterinary Journal 206 (2015) 284–288

Takeuchi Y., Houpt K.A., Scarlett J.M. Evaluation of treatments for separation anxiety in dogs.J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000 Aug 1;217(3):342-5.

Steven Lindsay's Applied Dog Behaviour and Training is extremely useful. It is in three volumes, and pricey. The third volume is the one with solutions, but all three are worth reading. He can be a little idiosyncratic, and sometimes takes a long time to explain something simple, but he is thorough, and has dog-sense. He is American, but like Britain's John Fisher, had a background in dog training before becoming interested in dog behaviour. Lindsay strongly links behavioural issues to training in a wider sense, as well as looking at other causes. His pragmatic approach also fits with the British tradition. He is particularly good on ways to build up trust between owner and dog, and on training as a way to improve the dog's quality of life.

For studying dog behaviour out of interest, rather than to solve problems, Adam Miklosi's The Dog, Biology Behaviour and Cognition is fascinating. Miklosi fits well with Lindsay, because both are careful scientists in their own way. Together they give a rounded picture of dog behaviour. Scott and Fuller's classic Genetics and the Social Behaviour of the Dog gives insights into developmental stages, and some genetic differences between dogs. It is quoted by both Lindsay and Miklosi.