The Petfix Vet Spot on RTE’s Today Show: chewing, aggression and coprophagia

 

In this vet spot, we discuss some of the most common behavioural problems seen in pets. Watch the video to learn more, or read on below.

Chewing

Chewing is a normal behaviour and a fundamental need for dogs. They use their mouths to investigate the world around them in much the same way we use our hands. Dogs chew for many reasons, for example:

  • To relieve stress and boredom
  • To play
  • Reduce anxiety, and for fun.
  • Chewing releases endorphins (the neurotransmitter that opioids mimic) so it stands to reason that they enjoy it.
    dog with orange ball in mouth

Chew Toys

To help dogs understand when chewing is okay and work out their preference, they need to be provided with a range of appropriate chew items. This can include toys that have different

  • Textures
  • Tastes
  • Smells
  • Shapes
  • Sizes

If they’re not provided with chew items they’re likely to find their own and opt for the things around them, like shoes and furniture. They don’t know the difference between what’s allowed and what’s not, so it’s important not to punish your dog if they chew something they’re not supposed to. To punish them will only make them feel anxious and could lead to further chewing.

If you do catch your dog chewing something that you don’t want them to, try distracting them with a treat or a toy and encourage them to chew something they’re allowed. Wherever possible, keep things they’re not allowed to chew out of reach and rotate chew toys they are allowed, so they don’t lose their novelty value too quickly.
By consistently guiding and encouraging your dog to use fun chew items and distracting them from inappropriate items, you’ll teach them what’s right and wrong and encourage good behaviour.

Aggression

It’s easy to be negative about aggression and forget that it’s actually a normal part of communication between dogs. Normally, it’s designed to take place at a low level, to warn others away, so that it actually prevents conflict. Perhaps the single biggest way that we humans can prevent problems linked to dog aggression is to be more aware of dog body language so that we understand what’s going on, and we can take steps to stop it from escalating.
Severe aggression rarely happens out of the blue: there are usually warning signs of anxiety, stress, or fear that people may not recognise.
Signs of early aggression include:

  • Licking the Lips
  • Yawning
  • Looking Away
  • Narrowing the Eyes
  • Tucking the Tail between the Legs
  • Hunching Down Low
  • Looking Tense
  • Trying to Move Away

If these signs are noticed, early action can be taken to prevent biting. Unfortunately, not all dogs show these warning signs, and aggression can happen seemingly spontaneously without warning. Especially when big, strong, muscular dogs are involved, there are times when situations like this can be very dangerous indeed.

Main Causes of Aggression in Dogs

1. Fear and pain: if a dog is frightened or feeling pain, aggression can be their natural way to try to scare away the object/animal/person they are frightened of or that they believe may be causing them to feel pain.
2. Territorial: one of the main reasons why dogs were originally kept by humans is for their natural sense of territory. Many dogs will attack what they see as intruders, even if they are calm, relaxed and friendly at other times.
3. Possessive: some dogs are prone to “resource guarding”. This is why dogs should not be approached while they are eating, and why care should be taken if removing a favourite toy from them. There are very effective techniques to treat severe cases of resource guarding
that sometimes happens.
4. Maternal: like with many other species, a mother dog can be highly and uncharacteristically protective of her offspring. Also, female dogs undergoing false pregnancy can display unexpected aggression because they are affected by the same hormonal changes
5. Male to Male Aggression: male hormones can make dogs more likely to be aggressive to each other, which is one of the indications for castration. That said, some male dogs also show fearful aggression, in which case castration could make things worse, as removal of the male hormone testosterone may make them feel less confident and more fearful. So talk to your vet before doing anything permanent like castration.
6. Owner/ Family Aggression, when a dog is aggressive to a person or animal in the same house. This often links to underlying emotional issues that can take some teasing out needing long consultations with behavioural specialists to resolve.
7. Redirected Aggression: an example of this would be where a person intervenes in a dog fight, and the dog turns on the person intervening. There are many other examples of occasions where the dog is in a heightened state of excitement, and they turn on the nearest human almost accidentally, just because they happen to be there. Aggression is difficult to deal with: human safety must always come first. It’s best to consult with your vet first, perhaps moving on to a referral to a behavioural specialist. In the short term, practical safety measures like muzzling make sense.

Aggression always needs to be taken seriously: a consultation with your vet and/or a behavioural specialist is always a good idea.

Coprophagia

Coprophagia (when a dog consumes its own or another dog’s faeces) is a common problem. It doesn’t appear to be related to age, sex, diet, medical, or any specific behavioural problem, but dogs in multi-dog households may be more likely to be coprophagic.
Little is known about why dogs perform this behaviour, making treatment difficult. There are numerous products on the market that claim to help, but there is little proven success.
Treatment of coprophagia is often made worse when owners attempt to remove the faeces before the dog investigates them. Dogs learn quickly that the faeces they’re interested in is likely to be removed and therefore make exaggerated attempts to stop this from happening or investigate sooner.
It’s important not to punish your dog for this behaviour as it’s unlikely to stop them and they may resort to doing it in secret.
The most effective way to change this behaviour is to teach an alternative one, like teaching your dog to focus on you and follow the ‘leave’ command. Use items of low-value to begin with and build up to higher-value treats before going near faeces.
Reward your dog with a high-value treat when your dog manages to focus on you and leave the faeces. Encourage your dog to follow you by running in the opposite direction and when they come towards you, engage and distract with lots of treats and praise.
At home, give your dog lots of ways to expend mental and physical energy. Use activity feeding toys instead of feeding them from a bowl, get them engaged in games, and use puzzle toys that they understand how to use, so there is no frustration. Also make sure that your dog is not simply hungry: some dogs are not fed enough, so they eat faeces out of pure starvation.

 

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